Sunday, November 17, 2013

Who Are You Gonna Believe, Me or Your Eyes and Ears?

"People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got."

Richard Nixon
Nov. 17, 1973

It seems more than a little ironic to me that Barack Obama should be insisting — at this particular time — that what he really said about people being able to keep their health care plans was not what he clearly did say in some two dozen video taped campaign moments last year alone.

But presidents — as much as we might wish to believe otherwise — don't always appreciate the irony of some of the things they say and do.

Forty years ago tonight, I remember watching in utter astonishment as Richard Nixon insisted in a televised statement that he was "not a crook."

I was a mere boy at the time, but it sounded odd to my young ears, a president who felt compelled to assert that he was honest. Don't know why I felt that way. I was old enough to know better. (I can only imagine how it must sound to young ears today to hear the president insist that what those ears heard him say over and over was not what he really said.)

I grew up in a Democrat household, and my parents routinely accused Nixon of being deceitful. I had vague memories of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, but it wasn't until I was older that I realized the extent of Johnson's lies to the American public about the war in Vietnam.

I learned early that neither party has a monopoly on the truth — and that both parties routinely lie to the voters.

Still ...

Maybe I was naive — I probably was — but I thought it should go without saying that a president would tell the truth to the American people. (Maybe I was thinking of the early presidents, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, not the modern ones.)

Nixon was speaking to a gathering of Associated Press managing editors in Orlando, Fla., at the time. I think it may have been the first time Nixon ever publicly denied his involvement in any illegal activity. (I have long thought what Nixon considered to be criminal behavior and what motivated it was revealing — as he saw it, it was an illegal act if it was for financial gain. Apparently, illegal acts for political gain were just part of the give and take of life in the arena.)

Before that, I believe, he allowed surrogates to do the dirty work, but, by November 1973, the existence of Nixon's Oval Office taping system had been revealed to the public, and he had fired the special Watergate prosecutor because he demanded access to the tapes (precipitating the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre") — and, before the month was over, the mysterious 18½–minute gap in the White House tapes would be discovered.

Nixon may have been feeling a lot of pressure at this time 40 years ago. He may have realized that the gap would be discovered soon. His attorneys had been reviewing the tapes, after all. If he had been aware of the gap — or if he had been responsible for the erasure — he may have figured it was only a matter of time, and he needed to make a pre—emptive strike.

Of course, I'm just spitballing here. I didn't know what went through Nixon's mind. That was a common problem in those days. No one really knew how much Nixon himself had known about the break–in or the coverup. Much of it — well, at least Nixon's state of mind — is still speculation, nearly 20 years after his death.

If there was one strength Nixon and his staff had at that time — and, until things really began to collapse around Nixon in 1973–74, there wasn't merely one thing but a whole bunch of things that could be considered Nixon's strengths — it was that they may have been early masters of what has come to be known as the art of spin.

It didn't seem to matter, in 1973 and into the early months of 1974, what kind of accusation was tossed at Nixon or how irrefutable it may have appeared. He and his staff always managed to come back with a justification. Most of these explanations were only barely plausible — if they were plausible at all — but they opened the window of doubt just enough.

Maybe it was that history of success — or semi–success — that led Nixon to believe that he could get away with simply protesting that he was honest and implying that it was ridiculous to believe otherwise. Obviously, it didn't work.

(Five years ago, TIME magazine ranked it #1 on its list of the "Top 10 Unfortunate Political One–Liners.")

It is tempting, I suppose, to speculate on such an occasion, coming, as it does, only days before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Joel Rubinoff of The Record of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, writes that, among other things, the whole "I am not a crook" episode would never have happened if Kennedy had not been assassinated. Well, that was "one potential outcome," at least.

Rubinoff observes that "that's the thing about historical projections — there are no wrong answers. And no right ones either."

True, true.

On a short–term basis, I suppose, Nixon's strategy was successful. In a Gallup survey a couple of weeks later, Nixon's approval rating went up and his disapproval rating went down — by four points in both cases.

Unfortunately for Nixon, that survey was taken around the time that the 18½–minute gap in one of the tapes was revealed to the public.

And all bets were off.

Nixon's approval rating dipped below 30% in the next survey and never bounced back.

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