There’s no shortage of comparisons in the press of Donald Trump’s administration to Richard Nixon’s, and of the Russian controversy clouding the White House to Watergate.
While this is a much different era with a different mix of struggles, it’s worth understanding the parallels.
This particular attempt concerns several chapters of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s second book on Watergate, “The Final Days.”
The title notwithstanding, this comparison is not meant to suggest that Trump’s presidency is nearing its end; it’s just that several of the book’s chapters that delve into what Nixon’s own team thought of his ability to conduct foreign policy — particularly during a domestic crisis — bear a striking resemblance to the state of affairs in Washington today.
The Cast of Characters
Nixon’s top foreign policy aide, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and his deputies, Lawrence Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft, believed, according to “The Final Days,” that as the Watergate crisis heated up, keeping Kissinger in his post was “essential to the national security.”
The passage continues:
The three of them doubted that Nixon could handle foreign affairs without Kissinger. They believed that the key to America’s foreign policy was not only Kissinger’s experience and intellect, but also his stature. It was a balancing force against Nixon. If Nixon were to run foreign affairs without Kissinger, they reasoned, the sloppiness that marked his handling of Watergate, particularly the cover-up, would leave its mark on foreign policy.
Before taking the job, Kissinger had called Nixon “unfit for the presidency, dangerous, and capable of unleashing nuclear war.”
Remember, there was palpable relief in the Beltway at Trump’s selection of Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.
McMaster and Mattis haven’t questioned Trump’s foreign policy chops publicly, but a fairly large swath of the GOP foreign policy set has.
Dealing With the President
How familiar does this sound?
Kissinger didn’t like being walled off from Nixon by one of the president’s top aides, H.R. Haldeman, who seemed to view the foreign policy buff as something of a globalist.
According to the book:
In his meetings with the president, Kissinger was almost never able to get a decision on the spot. Instead, the president listened to his presentations impatiently and told Kissinger that he would inform him in due course of whatever actions he wished to take. […] It was a dangerous system, Kissinger believed, particularly with Haldeman taking the notes. The president’s mind wasn’t sophisticated enough to reach these kinds of decisions alone.
Another of Kissinger’s thoughts about Nixon: “There was no coherent policy developing; Nixon was apt to conduct foreign affairs by whim.”
And in briefing the president, Kissinger told his deputies to simplify briefing materials so Nixon could understand them, saying, “Don’t ever write anything more complicated than a Reader’s Digest article for Nixon.”
Some of the incidents that led him to the conclusion:
- “Nixon was presented a serious NSC option paper on Korea that contained a series of mutually exclusive alternatives, and he had checked all of them.”
- “Meeting with India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Nixon made it evident that he did not know where one of India’s principal states, Bengal, was.”
And yet Kissinger said, “I have a constituency of one man.”
How many times has that been said by a member of the current White House press shop?
Foreign Policy and Political Outlook
Kissinger went into the Nixon administration to help and then saw an opportunity — that he quickly thought was dashed.
He saw it, according to Woodward and Bernstein:
… as a once-in-a-century opportunity to build a new American foreign policy, to achieve new international structures based on unquestioned American strength, detente with the Soviets and China, a closer bond with Europe. It seemed no longer possible. Watergate was shattering the illusion of American strength, he said, and with it American foreign policy. […] Congress now felt free to interfere in foreign policy. Foreign leaders, allies and enemies alike, seemed perplexed by the president’s inability to deal decisively with his own troubles.
Again, sound familiar?
Cable news channels were quick to point out back in May that Trump, like Nixon, tried to evade his troubles by traveling to the Middle East, trying to push forward on a peace deal and negotiating some arms sales.
“The Final Days” chronicles Nixon’s travels and notes how the 37th president received an overwhelming welcome abroad, with Kissinger saying at one point, “It’s too bad that such crowds can’t be turned out in the United States.”
There’s even a discrepancy in the Russians’ and the United States’ readouts of a meeting between Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, who was secretary general of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party.
Through the Soviet news agency, Tass, the Soviets said a Nixon toast celebrated a detente between the two powers, as opposed to a personal relationship between the president and Brezhnev, forcing the Americans to do some cleanup.
Later, during a meeting of just Brezhnev and Nixon, the book notes, “Nixon still hadn’t mastered the briefing book, and Kissinger thought he was no match for Brezhnev, who was always extraordinarily well-briefed.”
The book also dealt with the outlook for the GOP, noting that headed into the midterm elections of 1974, “Republican prospects were awful.” And yet, “Nixon had the support of millions of hardcore party loyalists who could make life miserable for Republicans who stood against their president. […] The party would self-destruct if the leaders didn’t recognize the support that Nixon still had in the country.”
And that seems to be the pickle Republican congressional leaders find themselves in right now.