I was 6 years old when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency on a sweltering August day. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the back of my mother’s Volkswagen Bug, listening to her and my grandmother discuss Nixon’s almost certain impeachment.
What I mostly remember of that time, though, and I stipulate that this may come as much from the books I read later as it did from my own foggy experience, is an overwhelming sense of relief. Technically, Nixon’s crime had to do with plotting against his enemies and lying about it. But his unforgivable transgression lay in squandering the emotional energy of a country, dragging the electorate through an exhausting ordeal that seemed, increasingly, to be about nothing but his own survival.
This is why the most resonant line from that period came not from Nixon or his accusers, but from the man who mercifully pardoned him. “Our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald Ford said, eliciting a national sigh.
In effect, he was giving grateful Americans permission to finally leave politics in the 6 o’clock news, where it belonged, and go back to their bowling nights and disaster movies.
I’m reminded of this now not because I think there’s some perfect parallel between Donald Trump’s firing of the FBI director and Nixon’s savaging of his own Justice Department (which, by the way, I recounted in this January column, before Trump started firing everyone who was investigating him). We’re a long way from impeachment proceedings, and Trump’s latest move strikes me more as the imperious instinct of a tycoon than as the desperate lunge of a guilty man.
No, I go back to 1974 because, more and more, it seems to me that Trump is headed down the same broad path as Nixon, whether it ends in evidence of wrongdoing or merely in political paralysis. His undoing probably won’t be abuse of power or a cover-up, but rather our own inevitable, creeping fatigue.
In a sense, it was this same kind of national weariness that helped propel Trump to where he is in the first place. What so many voters didn’t like about the prospect of another Clinton presidency, aside from the whiny self-absorption of the candidate and her surrounding cast, was the near certainty of more never-ending drama.
After all the years of Whitewater and Ken Starr and a longer list of “gates” than you could find at O’Hare, even Democrats had little enthusiasm, understandably, for a Clinton spinoff.
This was the main effect of James Comey’s intervention during the fall campaign. It reminded everybody that this cyclical business about the email server — self-righteous allegations, breathless coverage, clueless nondenials and insincere apologies — would just never go away.
You can understand why a lot of Americans decided it was better to sit through a movie they hadn’t seen before, even if the reviews were dreadful and their expectations low, than to see the plodding, predictable show that would just go on and on until you…