Sunday, June 28, 2009

June 24, 2009

   "The more things change," some pesky Frenchman said, a century or two ago, "the more they are the same."  Right again, pesky Frenchman. This week the National Archives in College Park and the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, released about 30,000 pages of previously classified documents and tapes from the Nixon years.  Did we learn new things?  Sure.  Did we learn big new stuff about the players?  Good heavens, no. We learned, for instance, that in 1970 President Richard Nixon, the hero of these pages, told Armed Services Committee Chairman John Stennis of Mississippi that the United States was going to provide arms and run incursions into Cambodia, as well as continuing secret B-52 bombing raids "which only you and Sen. Russell know about."  (Russell had preceded Stennis as Armed Services Committee Chairman.)  Nothing new or surprising about Nixon in this.  The President loved secrets and surprises, loved having as few people as possible know what was going on, was not a believer in wartime democracy.  No surprises about Russell or Stennis either.  These were duty-honor-country senators of an earlier era who, told "It's for the good of the country," would say, "Yes, sir, Mr. President.  My lips are sealed." The Washington Post reports that the memos also give insights into a "well-known characteristic" of Nixon and his aides - "a hair trigger sensitivity to political rivals and quick machinations against them."  Example?  A Nixon directive to "destroy" Democratic vice-presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton.  Nixon's notes call Eagleton a "pipsqueak."  Nixon did destroy Eagleton, of course, when news leaked that the Democrat had undergone electric shock therapy.  That might not matter all that much nowadays - we are more sophisticated about treatment for mental illness - but back then, it blew the ticket out of the water.  Eagleton begged to stay.  McGovern, originally behind him "1000 percent," eventually pushed him off the ticket.   One genuine surprise:  Nixon turns out to have supported the Equal Rights Amendment.  It lost. Another surprise:   Nixon supported some abortions.  He told Charles Colson after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, "I admit, there are times when abortions are necessary, I know that.  When you have a black and a white...Or rape."Shocking?   Oh yes.  Out of character?   Not at all. The tapes cover new and old issues - Watergate and so on.  Sometimes they tell us new things about what happened, but mostly they don't - mostly they confirm what we thought we knew about those men - about Richard Nixon and H. R. Haldeman,  John Ehrlichman and the rest. The more things change, the more they are the same?  Damn right, pesky Frenchman, damn right.
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