Is the Constitution Still Relevant? On Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Why we Need Zombie Fred Thompson

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Let us put aside, for the moment, the fact that Donald Trump never wanted to be president. A pin we shall place in discussions of his gross incompotence, which was discussed seriously by only small, but important cadre of Republicans throughout his candidacy; three million more Americans than those who voted for Trump saw it as well. As much as it pains us, we must rush past more than mere mentions of his outrageous Twitter behavior, his painfully awkward encounters with State leaders, his irresponsible logorrhea that upends international diplomacy, his fundamental lack of even the most basic understanding of U.S. history and the Constitution, the complete dearth of intellectual curiosity that drives him to watch hours upon hours of cable news as his source of information, or even that he favors crackpot, ideologically-based, but facts-challenged bloviating from people like Andrew Napolitano over actual government intelligence to support his unfounded, historically-unparalleled accusations of illegal wiretapping by a then-sitting president. Let us admit that this paragraph could continue as one horrible, run-on sentence filled with evidence from the FAKE NEWS with which he is obsessed. Because all of that is really a distraction to what has happened in the past 24 hours.

I realize that in my small but faithful readership there are many people who actually lived through Watergate. I did not; I was born in 1976, but I grew up in an intellectual, politically-involved family. I am a voracious reader and an avid watcher of documentary films. My favorite on Watergate is the 1994 Daniel Shorr/BBC doc, A Third Rate Burglary. Released the year Richard Nixon died, this comprehensive, over 6-hour examination narrated by a man who was himself a member of Nixon’s “enemies list,” chronicles in great detail the sinking of Nixon’s Titanic; even today, reasonable people can disagree on when exactly it hit the iceberg. Was it in ordering the plumbers to take photos of Daniel Ellsberg‘s psychiatric records to staunch the bleeding from the steady release of the Pentagon Papers? Was it the moment conspiracy was spoken about in the Oval Office? Was it when he fired Archibald Cox, the independent counsel charged with determining if our president is a crook? Was it because Nixon knew that the unredacted tapes would be end of him, so in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre–a bloodless Night of the Long Knives— Nixon, incensed that Cox would not accept the outlandish Stennis Compromise (hey, let’s exploit a hearing-impaired Senator and hope he doesn’t hear the bad parts when transcribing; seriously, click the link), he ordered the Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox; he refused, and was fired, as was Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus, who was succeeded by the man who did pull the proverbial trigger, Robert Bork (who was later denied a seat on the United States Supreme Court in a brutal hearing).  Was it when Nixon then made a pathetic attempt to release redacted versions of the tapes (made known only because of the begrudging Senate testimony of Alexander Butterfield)? Or when the tapes were released after the Supreme Court had to tell the president that they were not his personal property? When did the presidency start to take on water and how rapidly it occurred is a fun intellectual game because we are removed from the fear and the danger. What did the president know and when did he know it? 

Not so today. The firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey has some parallels and some important differences. There was no denying that Cox was fired because Nixon was trying to protect his own threatened power; Democrats wanted Comey fired because of his inarguably inept handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails (which is in itself a symbol of the partisanship that has broken our government), something that appears to have impacted the presidential election in not insignificant ways. I imagine decades from now there will still be debate about this, but right now there is no denying that we are in a Constitutional crisis.

And the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is currently taking time to excoriate Democrats about Obamacare. That’s what’s happening, and that’s what worries me. Fiddling while Rome burns.

Our current AG, Jeff Sessions, who has financial ties to for-profit prisons while calling for a return to draconian drug sentencing, is so morally questionable that Coretta Scott King wrote a letter about him. He is more Bork than Richardson or Ruckleshaus. Our current House Judiciary Committee has rabid partisans in the majority, such as climate-change denier Lamar Smith or my home state’s Steve Chabot, a staunch defender of Trump. I know that I was not alive during Watergate but I think I have a working understanding of the details, and I don’t have much confidence right now that there are principled Republicans in power who will get moving the wheels of justice. It is time for us to stop this knee-jerk, partisan reactionary behavior and understand that we are at a vital juncture in our nation’s history. We need leaders of the majority party such as Fred Thompson, who before becoming an actor and a part-time presidential candidate, managed to ask the most important, aforementioned question to Butterfield about the listening devices in the Oval Office. (Some feel Thompson gets more credit than he deserves.) Millions of citizens already are convinced that elections do not reflect the will of the people; we can jump down the rabbit hole of the Electoral College another time, but there is no doubting that Trump is the most unpopular incoming, nascent president. We’ve already breezed past his gross incompetence, so it is not as though we owe the man a thing. He has to go.

There was a famous moment in Bill Clinton’s first term after the Republicans swept into power in the unprecedented 1994 midterm election. He was being so overshadowed by the bombastic Newt Gingrich that Clinton had to say to the press, “The president is relevant.”

Is the Constitution?

Our responsibility as citizens is to make it impossible for the government to do anything until it does due diligence and shows us that, indeed, the Constitution is still relevant and it still works. Let’s hope we don’t have to call upon a zombie Fred Thompson to get it done.

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