We've been here before
It was on September 11, 1970 when Vice-President Spiro Agnew, speaking at the California Republican’s State Convention, described the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism” because of their investigation of the Nixon White House. So we flash forward 48 years to hear similar sentiments coming from Donald Trump, even though his comments are much more explosive. When the President of the United States describes a free press as “enemies of the state” and “enemies of the people” it sets a precedent that has never been approached before.
Richard Nixon was so paranoid about what the press might find out and that he might lose the 1972 election that he approved the break-in of Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate in Washington D.C that was led by “break any rule or law as long as it benefits us” G. Gordon Liddy, even though Nixon was miles ahead in the polls. Later on that year, a document that became known as the Pentagon Papers was turned over to the Washington Post for publication. This document was an indictment against the Nixon Administration over how they were handling the Vietnam War. After much debate and hand-wringing, the Post decided to print the document in totality, knowing that the Nixon Administration would take them to court to prevent it and if the Administration won, the Post would be history.
The owner of the Post during that time was Katherine Graham who called Watergate and the surrounding fallout from it as the most significant news story of her life. She was counseled by confidants and experts to not take the chance of threatening the livelihood of the paper by publishing The Pentagon Papers but she did it anyway and as her advisors had predicted, the Nixon White House took their opposition all the way to the Supreme Court. So the future of the Washington Post not only hung in the balance but the future of American politics as we knew it did also.
The Supreme Court voted 6-3 in favor of Mrs. Graham and the Post, saying that “government works for the governed not the governors.” Shortly after the decision, in recordings made at the White House, the President was heard telling his staff that the Washington Post would never be welcome again in the White House as long as he was President, not even their photographers, and if they appeared, whoever allowed it would be fired immediately. That’s what he thought about the press digging for the truth. And that’s the same attitude our current President has.
As a result of the publication and its aftermath, in a time far different than the one we’re living in now, members of the President’s own party went to him privately and strongly encouraged him to resign the Presidency because if he didn’t, he was sure to be impeached and convicted. The President took their advice and became the only U.S. President to ever resign their office. His Vice-President, Gerald Ford who had replaced Spiro Agnew who had already resigned, gave Nixon a full pardon because significant legal scholars had decided that Nixon had broken several laws in his handling of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. This also created a furor among the body politic but as things calmed down, the nation eventually returned to normal.
So what has changed in almost 50 years? Not very much at all. Elected officials involved in wrong-doing still fear the media. I was a J-school major my first year of college and I can assure all of those reading this column that we were never taught to investigate only Republicans. Our aim and objective was to find the truth, no matter what it was and no matter what rock it was under and I have no reason to think that anything different is being taught today. If you’re doing what you were elected to do, you have nothing to fear. But if you’re not, the truth will come out sooner or later. Yet that lesson has apparently being lost on many Americans living and voting today. They believe the press is out to get Trump just like supporters 48 years ago thought the press was out to get Nixon.
The truth won out then. We can only hope it wins again.