“Unfortunately, the hearings will be dismissed as ‘theatrics,’ and the MAGA morons aren’t watching anyway.” I’ve been hearing some version of that from friends and family who are sure that the Jan. 6 committee hearings will have no more impact on Republicans than that of the two impeachments of Donald Trump.
Some, including me, have attempted to make a hopeful comparison to the Watergate hearings and Nixon’s resulting disgrace, but the most frequent response is that 2022 isn’t 1974, and today’s Republicans are nothing like the “patriotic” Republicans of 1974.
So please join me as I explore the similarities and differences between the two scandals, partly based on my experiences working in the White House at the end of Nixon’s presidency.
First of all, while Trump won in 2016 and lost in 2020, he didn’t win the popular vote in either election. In contrast, Nixon won the popular vote in both 1968 and 1972. In 1972, months after the Watergate break-in was reported, Nixon won with 60.7% of the popular vote, taking the majority of the electoral votes in 49 of our 50 states. Trump’s supporters are loud and gullible, and as we have learned, they can be violent, but they are still a minority.
As I have noted previously, I was never a fan of Richard Nixon. As a matter of fact, my first political memory comes from 1960 when I believed that all Jews were supposed to support Kennedy over Nixon. The subsequent revelation of Nixon’s blatant antisemitism and bigotry via tapes released by the National Archives proved the wisdom of that belief. When I started college in 1973, studying politics and journalism at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., my secondary goal was to be able to protest the Nixon administration up close.
I had the opportunity to participate in the protests after the “Saturday Night Massacre” and attend the Ford confirmation and Watergate hearings. However, when as an 18-year-old I was offered a part-time job with the National Security Council (NSC), I jumped at the opportunity. I still respected the institution of the presidency, and I doubt any politically obsessed student would have passed up the option of working in the White House, at least not prior to 2017.
And here is where I find some important similarities between the current day and the Watergate years. When I joined the NSC staff I met many people in their 20s and 30s who absolutely worshiped Richard Nixon. They had postponed their college education and lucrative careers to work for a president they saw as someone who could get us out of Vietnam, restore respect for authority to America’s youth, and bring out-of-control criminals to justice. This is much like today’s Republican voters who believed Trump’s claim that “only I can fix it” about their perceived threat to the nation from crime, immigrants and people of color.
Like today, the Watergate hearings were broadcast on almost every news channel although at that time there were only a few major networks with news operations. Even with many other viewing options today, the January 6 hearings are getting high “ratings.” The first hearing had around 20 million prime time viewers.
Most of the Nixon loyalists I knew refused to watch the Watergate hearings, or consider the evidence. Most congressional Republicans in 1974 continued to support their president. However, as the evidence piled up and the recordings of Nixon’s conversations became public, a tipping point was reached — even the most loyal fans of the president had to admit to the truth. While I personally felt bolstered by the evidence, I sympathized with the heartbreak of people I knew who finally realized they had been betrayed.
The Republicans who came to Nixon and told him he needed to resign were driven by self-interest and party loyalty in addition to patriotism, since they didn’t want to be saddled with a criminal president during the 1974 midterms and 1976 election.
So that’s what the optimist in me wishes will happen again. When incoming President Gerald Ford said in 1974 that “our long national nightmare is over,” he accurately conveyed the emotions of relief and hope felt by most of the nation. My wish is that the committee’s evidence is so well documented and incontrovertible that even some of the most rabid MAGAs have to face the truth and understand we need to end the ongoing Trump nightmare. Combine that with Republicans in Congress who realize that continuing to embrace Trump will lead to their defeat, and we may yet have a chance to save our democracy.
As Richard Nixon said goodbye to his staff in 1974, I was one of the few there who wasn’t shedding tears. Of course President Ford soon pardoned Nixon, who never really paid for his crimes. I do hope that one major difference between now and then is that Trump and his co-conspirators face real justice for their misdeeds.
Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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