Monday, June 10, 2013

Still the One!

Why is it that even after half a century, the standard American president is still Richard Nixon?


We’ve had a lot of presidents since then, and even more prior to that.  We’ve had thin ones and fat ones, tall ones and, um, less tall ones, and our current president is nothing if not unusual by the physical standards of previous ones.  They’ve had any number of different accents, spoke in pitches that range from Gregory Peck basso profundo to scratchy little tenor voices you’d expect to hear in a prep school, and ranged from captivating speakers to people you wouldn’t hire to read to the deaf.  There’s been a lot of them, is what I’m saying.

Yet whenever anyone wants a character that clearly and unequivocally says, “American president,” what do we get?  A jowly, slick-haired, gravel-voiced, shifty-eyed Nixon clone, or at least someone built off that model.

We were watching Doctor Who tonight, an activity that has become our favorite family pastime of late, and we’re nearing the end of Season 3 of the new Doctors.  In this episode, the American president comes flying in to Britain to take over a situation.  He gets off Air Force one, strides over to the British Prime Minister, and there he was – Tricky Dick in all his glory, though with a bit of New York City Mafia in the hair.

Not that it went well for him, as you could see coming from pretty much the moment he showed up.  Suddenly, we don’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.

But he’ll be back.  He always comes back, just like he did in real life.

Last year I was listening to the radio around Presidents’ Day (for those of you not in the US, this is the holiday that you get when you lump together George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays and then bleach it entirely of meaning).  President’s Day is essentially the consolation prize for Valentine’s Day, when – especially if you were hoping for sheets and towels – you can buy for yourself whatever your significant other neglected to provide.

Cue the opening strains of “Hail to the Chief,” because that’s something nobody else has ever thought to use in a commercial.

And then comes the announcer, describing in those characteristically breathy and stilted Nixonian tones the glories of the various towels for sale.

I have no idea what makes Nixon so compelling in popular culture that way.

I suppose I can see why you don’t see Reagan (forgetful, old, scary) or Clinton (hound-dog, slippery) or George W Bush (“morons use our product”) in these commercials and shows.  But wasn’t Nixon the guy who got hounded from office one step ahead of the law?  Didn’t he perpetrate the greatest Constitutional crisis of the 20th century?  Oh yes he did.  It’s not like he’s a great moral exemplar that you’d want to pin your product or show to.

But somehow he sticks in the popular mind the world over as the prototypical American president.

I’m not sure what this says about the United States, but I have a feeling it isn’t complimentary.


John the Scientist said...

Dude, have you seen the NSA reports? That, to me, is a bigger Constitutional crisis than Watergate. Iran-Contra, former CIA directors, The Shrub, Obamacare for your phone records, they are ALL Tricky Dicks.

Eric said...

John, the distinction would be that everything the NSA has done so far appears to be perfectly legal--unlike breaking into the Democratic offices at the Watergate hotel or laundering weapons and money to violate both an embargo of Iran and a Congressional act intending to prohibit funding the Contras.

That doesn't mean that the NSA surveillance isn't possibly a greater threat to civil liberties or more offensive. But the odds are that your members of Congress authorized it (both of mine did). Following the letter of legal authority granted by Congress, the Executive branch duly applied to a court established by Congress, and a Judicial official empowered by law to act in this capacity reviewed and granted the request to seek customer data from various private telecom firms and online service providers (who were required to share the information by law, were prohibited by law from divulging that the request had been made, and were immunized from any liability that might arise from these actions). And then all of this was reported back to the Congressional committee charged with oversight of these programs (though they aren't legally allowed to talk about any of it, either).

In short, the NSA reports are the result of your representative democracy functioning as designed, John. It's superfuntimeultimate representative democracy, with all three branches of government getting involved and overseeing each other and checking and balancing right and left and working in a bipartisan fashion for a Better America(TM).

This is how our system is supposed to work, but whether it's how it should work that's the real problem.

And I want to be clear unless the point was missed: this is a situation where obeying the law is worse than breaking it. Nixon could have been impeached (until he resigned) and should have been prosecuted (but for Ford's pardon). Iran-Contra resulted in at least ten indictments (though almost all the convictions were overturned or pardons granted by G.H.W. Bush when he became President). There was recourse to the law, in other words (even if it didn't stick in either case). The NSA stuff? This is the law.


David: you inspired a post that will be appearing at Giant Midgets in a little bit, once I get it tolerably wrapped up. Thank you.

Eric said...

("Following the letter of legal authority" as in "following the letter of the law", not that Congress wrote a letter: we're talking about the PATRIOT Act and various FISA reauthorization bills that have been passed into law during the last decade.)

John the Scientist said...

Eric, my point is legal or illegal, prosecuted or unprosecuted, those in power seem to have the same attitude towards their fellow citizens.

David said...

Attitude is one thing - Constitutional crises are something else.

You can make a good claim that the current NSA scandal is a genuine threat to liberty, but you cannot claim it is a Constitutional crisis because, as Eric pointed out, it was all done with Constitutional sanction.

Perhaps we ought to amend the Constitution to prevent such things. I would favor that. Good luck getting that through the screeching baboons complaining loudest about the NSA scandal, though.

This crisis goes back at least to the Bush Fils administration, with the Patriot Act and its ilk. I do not excuse the current administration for its actions, but the bottom line is that while Iran/Contra and Watergate were criminal acts, so far nothing in the current scandal is.

That in itself is an indictment of our system.

Eric said...

Is there any reason not to assume the NSA's attitude is the nigh-universal attitude of policemen and prosecutors across the USA, that the innocent should be protected and the guilty should be punished by any lawful means necessary? Any reason to believe that if PATRIOT were repealed tomorrow, the NSA would do what the Iran-Contra perps did, and clearly break the law?

And for that matter, is there any reason to equate the NSA's (likely) "Protect and serve" attitude and the Iran-Contra perps' apparent "Ends justify the means" attitude with the Nixon circle's "All's fair in war (love is for saps)/WWJKD*?" paranoia? While there may be superficial similarities, I don't know that any of them have the same attitude at all.

Please note that any nobility in the NSA's attitude has nothing to do with whether what they're doing is a good idea in the first place. There's an old saying about the road to Hell that I'm sure we're all familiar with.

*What Would Joseph Kennedy Do?

KimK said...

Eric, for getting that product to stick, I'd recommend a slight edit: Better 'Merica. BM for short. (TM). Thanks for giving me the giggles - I needed that today.