Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate burglary that would end Richard M. Nixon’s presidency two years later. By then, his vice president and successor, Gerald R. Ford Jr., would tell Americans, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
Little could Ford or his audience have imagined the nation’s current nightmare, one that’s far from over. We’re enduring the biggest presidential scandal since Watergate, or ever: Donald Trump’s continued assault on democracy, following his unprecedented refusal to accept the 2020 election result and allow for the peaceful transfer of power to the winner.
When Nixon resigned and helicoptered away from the White House, the often uttered consensus was that “the system worked.” All three branches of government had done their part: Congress, the courts and even the executive branch once Nixon’s henchmen were out of the way and prison-bound. Finally Nixon himself — a believer in constitutional governance, despite his many flaws, and a patriot compared to the traitorous Trump — accepted that the jig was up.
In Trump’s case, the system hasn’t worked. So far. He walks free as the Justice Department dallies, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from his marks, er, supporters (“The ‘Big Lie’ was also a big ripoff,” as San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren said), and says he plans to run for president again. It’s far from clear whether the system will — or can — bring him to justice before that happens.
Yet we’ve gained some hard-won knowledge: It’s not “the system” that must work to preserve our 246-year-old nation. It’s the people whom we entrust to operate the machinery of government who must act.
And those people, chiefly the Republicans among them, continue to fail us. Led in Congress by Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, they’ve enabled Trump’s worst abuses for years by their acquiescence and by their opposition to his impeachment, first for extorting from a foreign country for political dirt and then for inciting an insurrection to remain in power.
In February 2021, the Senate voted 57 to 43 to convict Trump for incitement, but the majority — all 50 Democrats and seven principled Republicans — was 10 votes shy of the two-thirds margin needed under the Constitution. Had McConnell and just nine additional Republicans voted to convict, they wouldn’t have to worry that Trump might well be their party’s 2024 nominee. They could have barred him, post-conviction, from running for federal office.
Nixon, too, had his Republican enablers initially, including Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. That helps explain why it was more than two years from the election-year burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building to Nixon’s resignation under threat of impeachment and Senate conviction.