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Every President Since Nixon Has Been 'Nixonian'

A brief history of media hyperbole

In Washington, it’s almost a rite of passage for a president to be compared to Richard Nixon, and this week the current occupant of the White House got his. The lawyer who represented the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers ordeal wrote a piece comparing the president’s dealings with the press to Nixon’s, only to conclude that Obama is worse. George Will referred to the IRS investigation of conservative 501(c)4s as more evidence of “the Obama administration’s lawlessness” that “echoes Watergate.” Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei noted that the reporters on yesterday’s episode of MSNBC's “Morning Joe” “made it sound like Obama is a latter-day Richard Nixon.” And that’s just the tamer mainstream stuff.1

Of course, most of these comparisons require a bit of historic amnesia. While Nixon used the IRS to intimidate and investigate his enemies, there’s no evidence that Obama had any clue about the agency’s wrongdoings. There also doesn’t seem to be any cover up, since the story itself was uncovered by an inspector general report that was slated to be made public this week. And it appears that the Justice Department broke its own binding regulations, but not necessarily the letter of the law, in secretly obtaining two months’ worth of Associated Press phone records. It’s troubling, just not quite Nixon territory.

But the press, drooling over this week's bounty of scandal (and terrified that they might miss the next real Watergate, as most reporters did the original), cannot resist the comparison. If it's any consolation to beleaguered Obama, here's proof that the press has never resisted the comparison:

George W. Bush   

Bush probably faced more Nixon comparisons than any president before him, and his abuses of power have been well documented. The editorial director of called the president "George W. Nixon", and Richard Nixon’s own White House counsel, John Dean, pointed out during the Valerie Plame controversy that “Nixon never set up a hit on one of his enemies' wives.” Dean would later write a book titled Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.

Bill Clinton

Clinton’s comparisons to Richard Nixon came about mostly during the Monica Lewinsky affair—or "Zippergate"—and the president’s subsequent impeachment. Frank Rich called Clinton’s use of executive privilege during the Congressional investigations “Nixonesque.” David Broder—the dean of the Establishment media—declared that Clinton’s decision to lie about his affair with Lewinsky was “every bit as bad as what Richard Nixon did.” Clinton, of course, would subsequently be acquitted of all charges.

George H.W. Bush

In 1992, Carl Bernstein himself called Bush’s attitude toward the media “Nixonian” because the president was “obsessed with leaks and secrecy” and didn’t think the press was on his side. Similarly, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post accused the senior Bush of a “Nixonian ethic” in his use of race as a cudgel in the 1988 election.  

Ronald Reagan

Reagan came cose to having his own Watergate with the Iran-Contra scandal. When it was discovered that he had secretly approved the swapping of arms for hostages—despite a law passed by Congress explicitly banning it—Democrats considered impeaching the president. But Reagan escaped much of the scrutiny. Even Oliver North’s destruction of the records that could have connected the president to the scandal—a very “Nixonian” event—was seen as an event taking place completely out of Reagan’s view. The consensus view was summed up in a New York Times editorial titled “How Irangate differs from Watergate,” where political scientist James David Barber concluded that “the danger of the Reagan Presidency has been drift and accident, even chaos, rather than Nixonian rigidity.”

Jimmy Carter

Carter is widely remembered for his kindly demeanor and well-meaning, but bumbling approach to the presidency. But when Carter’s brother, Billy, was found to have taken money from the Libyans in hopes of influencing U.S. policy, a congressional investigation was launched. The president was cleared of any wrongdoing in "Billygate", but not before columnist Jack Anderson, the longtime Nixon nemesis, deemed it “a major scandal … a la Watergate.”

Gerald Ford

Ford escaped accusations of acting “Nixonian,” and he never had a “-gate.” But it's certainly a scandal that Ford—never elected to the presidency or the vice presidency—gave Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for his actions in the scandal to end all political scandals.

Of course, before Watergate there was Teapot Dome. "Benghazi-gate" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it sure beats "Benghazi-pot Dome," or whatever. Maybe it’s better we have "Nixon" to kick around after all.

Eric Kingsbury is a web editorial intern at The New Republic. Follow Eric on Twitter @ericmkingsbury.

  1. See this gif from Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith, or the front page of yesterday’s Boston Herald