John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist who both coined and lamented the term “conventional wisdom,” was a proud exponent of it where Richard Nixon was concerned. The two had actually known each other a bit during World War II, when they served in the Navy together, long before the former went on to become President Kennedy’s ambassador to India. Asked in August 1974 whether there wasn’t “a little Nixon in all of us,” Galbraith famously replied: “I say the hell there is!”
Yet there can be no doubting that Nixon, his resignation in disgrace notwithstanding, enjoyed a unique communion with the American electorate: He remains, more than 20 years after his death, one of only two Americans ever to run on the national ticket five times (the other was Franklin D. Roosevelt); and Nixon’s 1972 re-election victory remains one of the nation’s greatest presidential landslides, in terms of popular vote, the Electoral College and states captured (49).
Such stunning electoral success – achieved despite Nixon’s lack of innate charisma and a national press corps that loathed him with singular intensity – might make comparisons to the 37th president more of a compliment than a curse for latter-day politicians; but most don’t see it that way. And this week has brought a new round of such comparisons for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, whose surrendering of her private server to the FBI, following her admission that she destroyed much of the official correspondence it once contained, has again ensnared her in controversy and scandal.
“I’m in their crosshairs again,” Clinton told voters in Iowa on August 14, referring to Republican critics. “It’s about politics.” Likewise, former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean told NBC’s “Today” show the day before that criticism of Clinton’s secretive email practices represented nothing more than “an attempt by the Republicans to smear the [Democratic] frontrunner early on.”
Now, however, unflattering linkages of Clinton and her server to Nixon and Watergate are coming from individuals who stand outside of Republican politics. Bob Woodward, the venerated Washington Post editor whose reporting with Carl Bernstein helped expose the Watergate scandal and earned the Post a Pulitzer Prize, has called such comparisons “fascinating” and urged today’s investigative journalists to “follow the trail” of the server and its correspondence.
“You’ve got a massive amount of data” in each case, Woodward told MSNBC on Monday. “It, in a way, reminds me of the Nixon tapes: thousands of hours of secretly recorded conversations that Nixon thought were exclusively hers – er, his.”
Likewise Evan Thomas, the former Newsweek editor whose new biography Being Nixon has been both praised and damned for its even-handed treatment of the thirty-seventh president, sees the comparisons with Clinton as apt. In an interview with Fox News, Thomas cited the “secretive” nature of both politicians. “The great mystery of Nixon was why he thought -- continued to think -- he wasn't going to get caught,” Thomas said. “Same mystery for Mrs. Clinton: What makes her think she's not going to get somehow caught up in a scandal?”
Judge Andrew Napolitano, Fox News’ senior judicial analyst, told “Fox and Friends” the analogy was an “interesting” one: “President Nixon acted as if he was never in trouble, he was never going to be investigated, he was never going to be caught. And PS -- those tapes belong to me, they don’t belong to the government. Does that sound familiar?”
Of the 3,700 hours of secret recordings President Nixon made in the Oval Office, the Executive Office Building and selected other locations between February 1971 and July 1973, when his taping system was in operation, investigators ultimately discovered that eighteen-and-a-half minutes – or .000083 percent of the total volume of recordings – were deliberately erased, by a person or persons never identified.
By contrast, Clinton has acknowledged that she herself deliberately erased roughly 30,000 of the 63,000 emails sent or received on her private server while she was America’s top diplomat – meaning she destroyed roughly 48 percent of the total volume of the materials in question – last fall, almost two years after she left the State Department.
As her supporters point out, Clinton has not been charged with committing any crimes and is not, according to the Justice Department, herself under investigation at present. Rather, the seizure of the server by the FBI is said to be part of a broader “security referral” by a pair of inspectors general looking into the use of private servers by recent secretaries of state.