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[From the Archive]

The Adversary

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There is a large and historical callous on my right middle finger that marks how seriously I have taken the political demise of Richard Nixon. The protrusion is occasioned by six months of furious note-taking, and now that Nixon has taken his leave, it becomes necessary to distill from the drama something grand and important enough to justify so permanent a blemish. No one should be content to rest on naked history alone—on how Nixon has outdone himself in his quest for uniqueness, or on how we are unlikely to see a run of such dramatic political theater again.

Every reporter thirsted for the event to go on. It had the lure—the officially unanswered question of whether the president was a crook and/or liar. It had the grist—the riddles, trials, and peripheral disasters—that fed the scandal along the way. It also played right into the manhood and professional pride of reporters. People yearned for it to be drawn out still further, and it was a serious faux pas to mention Gerald Ford’s upcoming presidency in an earnest discussion. It was like bringing up labor problems at a stockholders’ meeting, or the draft at a senior prom, as everyone expected President Ford’s tenure to inflict an agonizing national hangover to atone for the entertainment spree of Nixon’s. Ford, it was agreed, would be deadly. He would be a man appropriately beneath the times, a political sleepwalker transformed into a messiah, perhaps even a personality with some human spark, by the massive patriotic insecurities of the various establishments, including the press.

So there was both reason and excuse to surround the president’s downfall with hyperbole. Nixon’s crimes were sins of weakness, and no matter how much they might be puffed up to dignify him as an adversary, they fell hopelessly short of good despotic material. He could not control the bureaucracy, so he tried to get around it and backed down meekly at the first resistance. His impotence was brought rudely home when he could not keep the Justice Department from crawling up his leg.

There was eloquence and heroism in the crucible of statesmanship, but it was not, by and large, the noble sweat of leaders falling on their swords to save the Republic. It was jarring when Nixon, with his tapes and his overall behavior, went to extraordinary lengths to batter down the nation’s genuflected dreams. The distance between his pious grandeur and his lowly character was so great as to undermine the moral operation of politics. The credibility gap, the exalted promise, and the claim of virtue are all necessary to allow politicians their cherished place as lightning rods of hope, and Nixon threatened to expose these tools to constant scorn. They could not stand by him.

Nixon also worried those few congressmen who realized that he would unavoidably tarnish everything traditional and “straight.” With his empty talk of “great goals,” he was an embodiment of the era—running, striving, trying to make something of himself. Nixon was not overcome by the superior strength of closet socialists, as he would like to believe. He and his era just ran out of gas and fell to their feet. In a historical context, Nixon and the crisis of confidence in government did not cause the country’s slow descent; it was the other way around.

With Nixon gone, politics will no doubt return to normal. Congressmen will join all responsible media voices in the formidable task of conferring the halo and aura of power upon Mr. Ford, who they will hail with enough hosannas to set him out on the public doorstep like an empty milk bottle. Whatever people ultimately decide about the downfall of Richard Nixon—whether it was a tragic constitutional refresher, an atavistic morality play, a trial run for mediocre heroes, or a blow for some basic ethical restraints—his long travail revived the theater of America for a while.

From “Crimes of Weakness,” which appeared in the October 1974 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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February 2021