This Christmas I received the perfect present for a political science professor: a gift from a favorite relative and a research project all in one envelope.
While cleaning out my grandmother’s house last month, my father found an envelope marked: “Paper on Nixon, save for my great great grandchildren for History, Nov. 30, 1973.” Inside were three editorials from the Washington Post, titled “Operation Candor,” which were reprinted in her home newspaper in Evansville, Indiana.
Born in 1921, my grandmother Dolores Allen lived through the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and D-Day. It was the Watergate scandal, however, that motivated her to create this small time capsule for people that she would never meet before she died in 2013.
Since my children are 11 and 7, and my nephews are 8 and 5, the intended recipients of this material are yet to be born. I will keep the envelope safe for their children, but there is a more pressing concern for American citizens in 2019. What can we expect from the next two years, with a president under investigation for financial and governmental abuses?
These Washington Post editorials, written just after the Saturday Night Massacre made Nixon’s impeachment a likely event, give us an idea what the next two years will be like. We can expect confusing communication from the president and difficult choices for citizens and politicians.
The first of the editorials comments that “the President is not exactly clearing up the record on Watergate and related matters. Rather, he seems determined to add to the public’s confusion at almost every turn.” These words could just as easily describe President Trump’s tweets.
The final editorial argues that, whether Nixon’s lies came from self-delusion or deliberate deception, “such rhetorical evasions and distortions place an intolerable burden on the public and the government at a time of severe national stress.” Our current Congress, with fewer moderates and more polarized parties, will have even more difficulty dealing with the possibility of impeachment than the Congress elected in 1972.
Nixon’s problem was that facts could not be reconciled with an image of him as a legitimate president. The outcome for President Trump depends on what actually occurred during the campaign of 2016 and his early months in office. Our job as citizens is to respond to difficult truths with renewed and amplified work for the common good.
Hopefully my great-great grandchildren, looking back in 2100 on the events of the Trump era, will read about how Americans responded to stress and uncertainty by increasing their participation in the political system. The massive turnout in last month’s congressional elections, which was gigantic among urban and suburban supporters of Democrats but also large among rural supporters of Republicans, is a good start.
Hopefully the events of the Trump era also will not make us so cynical that we believe that a given politician “couldn’t do any worse” than current politicians. It can always be worse. There were Americans in 1968 who were more paranoid than Richard Nixon, and Americans in 1992 who were more deceptive than Bill Clinton. Thankfully they didn’t get elected president.
Whatever results from our next two years of conflict, online archives of news coverage should make it unnecessary for me to preserve newspaper editorials about President Trump for my great-great grandchildren. But in case the Internet cannot survive our current time of uncertainty and confusion, I will download some articles onto a flash drive and put it in an envelope.
Neal Allen is chair of the Department of Political Science at Wichita State University