Some Historical Perspective on the Watergate-Comey Comparison

Richard_Nixon's_resignation_speech

Nixon’s resignation speech (Wikipedia)

Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis University historian Martin Keller wonder if current comparisons between Watergate and the firing of James Comey are just another way for liberals, progressives, and Democrats to score political points.

Here is a taste of their conversation at The Atlantic:

Morton Keller: Julian, yours is a strongly argued, but highly partisan, criticism of Trump’s action in dismissing James Comey from the directorship of the FBI. My view of the episode is more complicated—as I think the episode itself is.

Watergate was a steadily expanding scandal: the break-in, the coverup, the dirty tricks campaign against the opposition using the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS.

This was hardly a one-party event. The Senate established a Select Committee in a 77-0  vote. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment—of necessity a two-party threat.

And what is the current status of the supposed Russia-Trump connection, the current counterpart to Watergate? To paraphrase Chicago’s former Mayor Daley: lots of allegations, but damn few alligators.

Let us accept that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to see Trump elected (though given Hillary’s reset efforts, and the isolationist, small-American profile of her party, that preference needs more explaining). But how much solid, Watergate-like evidence is there that Russian hacking, etc., made much difference in the election? Or are we supposed to swallow whole the risible idea that the disgruntled working-class (and middle-class) Trump voters of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin were receptive to Putin’s blandishments? Even in the current out-of-control politics of our time, that is a stretch.

I’m quite ready to see what emerges with respect to Trump, his associates, and Putin. But to airily equate the still far-from-demonstrated fact of significant Russian influence in the election (compared, say, to Hillary’s massive missteps) with the incontrovertible facts of Watergate is something I’m not prepared to do.

There is another defect in any meaningful Watergate-Comey comparison. The departures of special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Attorney General Elliot Richardson were sought by Nixon and his aides alone. The Democrats have been baying for Comey’s scalp since the days of the election. To erupt in high dudgeon when Trump—quite legally, if questionable politically—fired him, is to bring political hypocrisy to a high level indeed. Do you think for a moment that if Hillary Clinton was president, Comey’s tenure could be counted in more than milliseconds? Would she have bounced him because he had been a political detriment? Of course.

Did Trump do it because of the Russian inquiry? Perhaps—though there was good reason for him to have had doubts about Comey from the beginning of his presidency. Did he do it with typically Trumpian ham-handedness? You bet. Can more come out about Trump and Putin, Russia and the election, than we know now? Possibly. Has it yet? Not to my knowledge. As historians, we should not rush to judgment until there is good and sufficient evidentiary reason to do so.

At present, I don’t think the action is a demonstration of authoritarianism—any more than former President Barack Obama’s playing fast and loose with the handling of illegal immigrants or the specifics of Obamacare was. That’s just the sort of things that presidents do.

Read the back and forth here.

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