June 17 was the 35th anniversary of the 1972 Watergate burglary, which two years later drove Richard Nixon from office. Nixon resigned rather than be impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate. John Dean, who was the Nixon counsel placed in charge of covering up the Watergate crimes, wrote an observant and prophetic book in 2004 about Bush-Cheney’s first term. Its title was Worse than Watergate. During the second term, the Bush-Cheney regime all but imploded. Nevertheless, there were no impeachment hearings, and everyone needs to understand why.
First of all, would anyone have really wanted Dick Cheney to be the official President as well as the behind-the-scenes President? Nixon was probably secure as long as Spiro Agnew was his vice president. Agnew was a mad attack dog who played the role of the “Old Nixon” of the McCarthy Era, and that allowed “Tricky Dick” to appear to be a “New Nixon.” However, Agnew was also a more conventional crook who still received bribe payments from his stint as governor of Maryland. The IRS discovered he hadn’t been reporting that part of his income. Agnew resigned and was replaced by Gerald Ford. At that point, Nixon could be removed from office without our getting stuck with Agnew. That was not true with Bush-Cheney, and Cheney was probably more responsible than George W. Bush for everything that went wrong.
Secondly, Mr. Bush still had the support of religious political extremists. Nixon’s official reason for resigning was that he had lost his political base in the Congress and could no longer govern. Nixon’s primary Republican base consisted of right-wing cold warriors, the predecessors of the current neo-conservatives (whom Cheney placed in charge of much of our government in 2001). Neo-cons favor aggressive nationalism and perpetual warfare. Nixon’s problem with them was that he was trying to end the Cold War: Nixon went to Russia to sign an arms limitation treaty (SALT); and more importantly, he went to China! Mr. Bush knew not to do anything similarly commendable that would alienate his staunchest supporters and will keep his wars going. And he’ll keep his fundamentalist base happy by vetoing stem cell research bills and other things like that.
Thirdly, Mr. Bush was never going to willingly replace Att. Gen. Alberto Gonzales. A new appointee would have to be approved by a Democratic-controlled Senate and would almost certainly have to agree to appoint a special independent investigator.
Nixon’s first two U.S. Attorneys General were each convicted for their involvement in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Att. Gen. John Mitchell, also head of Nixon’s re-election committee, approved the burglary of the Democratic Party’s headquarters. The day after the burglars were caught, the break-in’s planner (G. Gordon Liddy) told the new Att. Gen. Richard Kleindienst that it was a White House operation. Kleindienst didn’t disclose what he had learned from Liddy. In fact, the judge in the case (John Sirica) noticed that the new attorney general’s prosecutors were not asking the burglars the obvious questions like “Who hired you?”
Nixon’s third attorney general, Elliot Richardson, accepted the job only with the understanding that an independent counsel would be given all the information necessary to clean up the mess in the Justice Department and the White House. When the independent investigator (Archibald Cox) demanded the previously secret White House tapes, Nixon insisted he be fired – and Richardson and his assistant resigned in protest. This is still known as “the Saturday Night Massacre.” Eventually, under Judge Sirica’s threat of a $25,000-a-day fine, Nixon turned over the tapes, which contained the “smoking gun” – Nixon had recorded himself approving the cover-up of the burglary.
Remember the reason for the Watergate cover-up! It was to protect the illegal and covert operations the Nixon White House had been involved in throughout its first term: the dirty tricks campaign operations, the White House secret police unit known as the “Plumbers,” and the undisclosed campaign slush funds.
Nixon’s criminal activities involved the FBI, the CIA, the Justice Department, fake letters, wiretapping, bugging, and snooping into people’s private lives. Any independent investigation into Gonzales’ politicizing the Justice Department might have have also opened up the proverbial “can of worms” that the renegade Bush-Cheney cabal couldn’t allow.
And don’t forget the infamous “Enemies List.” Once re-elected, the Nixon Administration planned to use all the available agencies of the executive branch “to screw (its) political enemies.” This appeared to have been Gonzales’ job as well in the Bush-Cheney Justice Department: Any U.S. attorney who had been willing to prosecute the appropriate Democrats could stay, and anyone who hadn’t been willing was not considered a “loyal Bushy” and had to be replaced. Mr. Bush didn’t want any independent counsel looking into this. Any investigation would no doubt have involved finding who was picking the Justice Department’s political targets. It has been said that in the Bush White House “all roads lead to Rove” – Karl Rove, that is. Mr. Bush made it very clear that he did not want Rove to testify under oath or in public.
Fourthly, the independent counsel statute had been allowed to expire. It served us very well during the Watergate and Iran-Contra crises and helped preserve our constitutional system. However, it was so blatantly abused by the Republican Congress during the Clinton years that it was allowed to expire. Gingrich “Khan” – Newt Gingrich earned that moniker when he was the minority leader in the House and reminded everyone of the Mongol tyrant Genghis Khan – led the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994. He seemed to understand that the best way to get rid of the independent counsel statute was to deliberately misuse it so that even the Democrats would vote against its renewal – if only to prevent its abuse again by Gingrich’s successors.
“Khan’s” original scheme was to associate Clinton with enough so-called “scandals” that the voters would reject him for re-election in 1996. We witnessed the relentless use of the McCarthy witch-hunt technique as the Republican majority investigated one phantom non-issue after another. When that failed, the plot changed to finding a reason to impeach him. A partisan-Republican special prosecutor (Kenneth Starr was not independent) and 70 million tax dollars finally found conclusive proof that Bill had cheated on Hillary. They could nail him if they could get him to lie about it under oath.
Since it was not Clinton who was subverting the Constitution, his trial was totally absurd. Unless of course, the real reason was to get rid of the independent counsel statute and thereby protect future Nixonian/Republican presidents. Another possible explanation was that if Clinton could be publicly embarrassed for infidelity, Al Gore wouldn’t use Clinton in his campaign for President in 2000. If so, Clinton’s impeachment accomplished the Republican Party’s political goals.
Ultimately, it was this trivialization of the impeachment process by Gingrich “Khan” and company that protected the diabolical Bush-Cheney regime more than anything else. It’s now hard for average American voters to take impeachment seriously – regardless of its importance or need.
by David Offutt
This is a slightly revised version of an essay that was published June 30, 2007, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.