I was 2 years old when President Richard Nixon’s operatives burgled the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in June 1972. But it wasn’t until two days after my fourth birthday, in April 1974, that Nixon realized he was implicated in the cover-up.
By then, the Senate had been investigating for a year, the Saturday Night Massacre — two resignations and a high-profile firing — had been enacted and seven members of Nixon’s administration had been indicted. A couple weeks later Nixon would release the tapes, recorded secretly in his office, that proved to be his undoing.
After a House committee recommended the first three articles of impeachment — obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress — Nixon got a visit in the Oval Office from Republican House leadership on Aug. 7, 1974, informing him that it was over.
Nixon resigned the next day.
The sole remaining memory I have of this episode happened in the small den of my parents’ house, where our only television broadcast the image of Nixon and his family leaving the White House for the last time. As he passed the Marine guard on the White House lawn, I remember my father saying, “That’s the last time he will ever get the presidential salute.” He sounded sad.
Before he took that final helicopter ride, Nixon, who had just been pardoned by Gerald Ford, spun to face the cameras and gave his signature victory salute: defiant until the end.
Now, watching these events unfold, it’s impossible not to think of Nixon’s final days in the White House, and to see clearly the differences between then and now.
Like now, Nixon’s supporters stuck with him until the last gasp, until it became politically impossible to support him — it wasn’t virtue or patriotism that finally brought Nixon down; it was fear of losing re-election.
And in the end, however ungracefully, Nixon bowed down to the constitutional forces that dictated his demise. Now, things are different.
Thus far, Trump has outright defied any attempts to rein him in — he hasn’t even shown us his tax returns yet. And in his refusal to allow White House staffers to testify in Congress, his demonization of the intelligence community, the media, the Democratic Party, dissenting Republicans and anyone else who dares speak the truth about his deeds, we get a sense of how this might play out.
The Nixon era tested the bounds of presidential authority and constitutional restraint; it left a generation of Americans without trust in our government and other vital institutions. But in the end, Nixon left the republic intact.
But Trump wants to tear the whole thing down as he goes — if he goes — just as our faith in government is at its lowest point in modern history.
We’ve been dismembered. And I don’t see how it all comes back together again.