A persistent theme of last week's coverage of the "White House in Crisis" was bewilderment at the president's celestial poll numbers. At one point, his approval ratings (78 percent) were higher than Mother Teresa's -- who, incidentally, in all likelihood went to her grave believing oral sex was adultery.
But nothing will wipe away the sense of wonder faster than a look at President Nixon's poll numbers during Watergate. In June 1972, following the break-in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex, Nixon's approval ratings were at 57 percent, jumping to 68 percent by January 1973. Then, as now, the cover-up was working. Nixon had won a landslide election, there was a cease-fire in Vietnam, and the economy was heading toward a gangbuster year of 5.2 percent growth. But hindsight allows us to see that January 1973 was in fact the apogee of the Nixon presidency. From then on, it was all downhill until August 1974 -- a full 18 months later -- when Nixon resigned.
Of course, as a fellow Greek put it, "You can never enter the same river twice." But if there are parallels between Nixon's Watergate and President Clinton's Everythingate, they point to the need for patience. A full eight months after the break-in, Nixon was enjoying his peak approval ratings. He was, like Clinton, seen as a pragmatic moderate, a problem-solver presiding over a healthy economy, while managing the greatest foreign policy challenge of the time, the Vietnam War.
So all appeared to have come up roses. But there were things stirring in the undergrowth -- like James McCord and John Dean. McCord was security director for the Committee to Re-elect the President -- fondly called Creep, the same term of endearment that Monica Lewinsky, a denizen of the Watergate, used to refer to President Clinton. It was McCord who implicated the president's counsel, John Dean, in the cover-up. Will any latter-day president's counsel be implicated? Perhaps Bruce Lindsey, who has been on retainer handling bimbo eruptions since the beginning of time?
Another Nixon player, burglary ringleader G. Gordon Liddy, went to jail rather than talk. So far in the Clinton saga, only Susan McDougal can claim that honor. Will any more of Clinton's henchmen join her by refusing to talk to anyone but CNN?
By April 1973, Nixon's approval ratings were down to 48 percent. Things were going wrong on two fronts: Meat prices shot up, putting carnivorous voters in a bad mood, and top presidential aides, including H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned, after being publicly blamed by Nixon for screwing up. Blaming his subordinates is about the only Nixonian strategy not rationally available to President Clinton -- although we can't rule out the possibility that the day will come when the president proclaims: "Betty made me do it." After all, we already have White House spin doctors whispering off-the-record sweet nothings about Monica's "predatory nature."
Come summer 1973, Nixon's two-pronged problems reached critical mass. Inflation had more than doubled -- to 9 percent -- since his re-election, and food prices were so out of control that in a nationwide television address, Nixon ordered a 60-day price freeze. At the same time, Dean disclosed to the Senate Watergate hearings, by then in full swing, that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up from the time of the break-in. He also revealed his ex-boss' "enemies' list" -- the precursor of Hillary's Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.
And just as she and James Carville, Rahm Emanuel and Paul Begala are doing now, Nixon's staunchest defenders questioned the motives of those investigating the president. Republican Sen. Carl Curtis blamed Watergate on "a determined coalition whose objective is not justice but to 'get Nixon.'" He described "the Nixon haters" as "a group of politico-sadists." James Carville, are you listening?
Such fiery defense notwithstanding, the president's approval ratings continued to plummet to 44 percent by June 1973 -- a 24-point drop in five months. And still, dear children, despite all this, despite a widespread gasoline shortage during which drivers had to wait in long lines to pay sky-high prices, despite Vice President Agnew's resignation, despite a recession and a 40 percent drop in the stock market, the beleaguered president remained in the White House for another 13 months.
Like Clinton a quarter of a century later, Nixon filled his remaining time with attempts to distract the electorate with policy proposals -- including his May 1974 comprehensive health insurance plan. At the same time, the president, whistling in the dark, proclaimed to the nation that "the worst is behind us."
That same month, Richard Mellon Scaife -- the very Scaife at the center of Hillary's right-wing conspiracy -- urged Nixon to step aside until his guilt or innocence was determined by a Senate trial. "He makes us feel, somehow, unclean," Scaife wrote.
Nixon's approval ratings were by then at a pitiful 25 percent. On July 24, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to hand over his tapes to the special prosecutor. Three days later, the House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment. Still, the coup de grace didn't come until Aug. 5, when the transcript of a tape was released that revealed Nixon talking about obstructing the FBI's investigation of Watergate. Four days later, Nixon resigned, and was replaced by an awkward, wooden vice president.
So is there a lesson in all this? You bet there is. Fasten your seat belts, watch the economic indicators and the news from Iraq even more diligently than the latest grand jury evidence, and put your impeachment fiesta -- or wake -- plans on ice. We're in for a long, bumpy ride.
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