Debate Club

Nixon Wanted Too Much Control, Obama Appears to Have Too Little

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For three years I have worked with John Dean, Nixon's White House counsel, on an ethics program for lawyers. We have given more than 60 lectures across the nation as we pass through the 40th anniversary of the Watergate era. The break-in was in June 1972, John testified before the Senate Committee in the summer of 1973 and Nixon resigned in 1974. So we are marking several 40th anniversaries.

In preparing for our programs, I have listened to a fair number of White House tapes. I am also writing a book focused on January 1973, the month that saw Nixon's second inauguration, the trial of the Watergate burglars, Roe v Wade, LBJ's death and the end of direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Uniquely among presidential scandals, we know what President Nixon was thinking and doing during his attenuated downfall – it's almost all on tape.

[See a collection of editorial Cartoons on the IRS Scandal.]

We recognize a deep irony when we measure the scandals currently facing President Obama against Watergate and the Nixon abuses of power. While we may never get to the bottom of Benghazi, it appears, at least for now, that the Associated Press and Internal Revenue Service scandals did not originate in the White House. This is a critical distinction from the Nixon-era "White House horrors."

Nixon overtly advocated using the IRS against his enemies and he was an enthusiastic fan of wiretapping journalists, not to mention staffers in his own Administration. In 1973, Richard Nixon fumed against his own Executive Branch. He wanted more control. He thought agencies should be more responsive to his demands and his political agenda. So frustrated was he with agencies like the IRS for not following his every order that he set about the complete reorganization of the Executive Branch following the election of 1972. He asked for everyone's resignation the day after the election so he could remake the Executive in his own image. A student of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, he did not want his second term to become "a burnt out volcano." He needn't have worried about that.

[See a collection of editorial Cartoons on Benghazi.]

The deep irony is this: Nixon caused his own problems by seeking and exercising too much control over his branch of government, whereas President Obama may be slipping into a serious second term swoon because he did not exercise enough control and oversight over his departments and agencies. Nixon demanded the reigns of power; Obama didn't seem to care or know enough about what was going on. The AP and IRS scandals are not Watergate. They do, however, raise some serious questions about the judgments of people who went about their business without any seeming parental guidance.

James Robenalt

About James Robenalt Partner at Thompson Hine

Obama administration

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