Nixonian? Not even close
Bad news always comes in threes, as the old saying goes, and that’s triply true in journalism, where a trio of events is sufficient to declare a trend.
Thus the president is supposedly beset by scandals: the Benghazi, IRS, and AP affairs.
Over at Fox News, where partisan provocateurs have long been trying to summon the specter of scandal from the vasty deep, Sean Hannity was like the cat who swallowed the canary. And why not? He’d just gotten Dick Cheney to label the Benghazi imbroglio “one of the worst incidents, frankly, that I can recall in my career.” (Given his role as lead propagandist for the Iraq War, one has to wonder whether the former VP had memory-replacement surgery along with his heart transplant.)
It’s all positively Nixonian, or so we’re told. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, compared Benghazi to Watergate. George Will, overcome by the vapors at the thought of the IRS’s unfairness toward Tea Party groups, used one of the articles of Nixon’s impeachment as a column epigraph.
In hinting at something he wasn’t quite willing to assert, Will joined the likes of Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Inhofe told a radio host that “people may be starting to use the I-word before too long,” while Chaffetz declared that though impeachment is not his goal, “it’s certainly a possibility.”
Watergate? Nixonian? Impeachment?
Please. Someone get the smelling salts.
For those who can’t arrive at them on their own, let’s draw a few meaningful distinctions between these supposed scandals and the Nixon era.
Start with Benghazi. This was obviously a security screw-up, but it doesn’t follow ineluctably that it was also a cover-up. Nor does the fact that the administration’s talking points went through various revisions demonstrate that. What the e-mail back-and-forth actually points to is not a false story concocted by the White House but rather a cover-your-agency-assets tug-of-war between the CIA and the State Department.
Now, given the GOP’s certainty that they’ll find political gold in the Benghazi tragedy if they just keep digging, these hearings will probably drag on, with GOP inquisitors declaring that each new “development” raises more “troubling questions.” But absent credible evidence, public interest will peter out.
The IRS matter, on the other hand, is serious stuff. Given its delicate mission, the agency’s conduct must be above reproach. That said, the notion that these abuses mark a return to Nixonian tactics is laughable. Nixon and his top aides were directly involved in using the government to harass the White House’s perceived enemies. There’s no evidence that anyone in the Obama White House, much less Obama himself, directed the IRS to target conservative groups or deny or delay their tax-exempt status. Unless and until there is, the IRS activities, though troubling, can’t accurately or intelligently be called Nixonian.
Finally, there’s the Associated Press controversy. I’m one who finds the Department of Justice’s broad subpoenaing of AP’s call records highly objectionable. The AP has said that it delayed publishing its story about a thwarted terror attack until government officials said their national security concerns had been allayed; I find it hard to believe that the AP would release a story that, as Attorney General Eric Holder claims, “put the American people at risk.” Further, it’s fair to say that Obama, who seems leak-obsessed, has set the tone for investigations that are counterproductive and chilling to the free flow of information.
But the fact that we in the media find this highly objectionable doesn’t make it a crime. Or even, frankly, a scandal.
Now, Congress has a legitimate oversight role in our government, even though, in our hyper-partisan era, those hearings and investigations too often stray into fishing expeditions or attempts at political embarrassment. (Certainly if House Republicans want fair-minded folk to take their investigatory efforts more seriously, they should have a congressman with greater credibility than Darrell Issa as their point man.)
Still, these investigations are something that presidents have to learn to live with and deal with.
But charges of a Benghazi cover-up don’t pass the evidence test. Comparisons to Nixon are idiotic. And it’s the height of partisan absurdity to suggest that anything we’ve seen in these so-called scandals could justify impeachment.
Scot Lehigh is a columnist for The Boston Globe.