On the rather surreal occasion of the opening of something solemnly called the George W. Bush “Library,” I was inexorably drawn not to my personal Bush Library of 92 infuriating volumes, but the somewhat smaller 60 or so in the Nixon section. As I listened to snippets of Village homilies and President Obama predictably joshing chummily about the “clubhouse,” I was reminded of Jonathan Schell’s masterful recounting of the Watergate era, The Time of Illusion.
In what he didn’t yet realize would become the template for all future Presidencies, but especially Republican ones, Schell noted that everything the Nixon Administration did, from its prosecution of the Vietnam War to its court picks and proposed health and welfare reforms, were pure political theater, utterly divorced from any policy goals. And when actual events failed to create the necessary drama, they were, get this, deliberately manipulated for the TV audience.
Sound familiar? Writing in 1975, Schell couldn’t have known that one day we would be treated to a President who not only prolonged an unnecessary war for political gain, but started one, and didn’t just wait on the tarmac in China for a few hours to make the evening news, but pranced around in a ridiculous costume at a “Victory” event so plainly designed as a campaign commercial that it beggared belief. For all his audacity, even Nixon wouldn’t have tried such a brazen stunt, but that was back in the days before Fox News, not coincidentally the brainchild of Nixon’s former campaign hack, Roger Ailes.
What Schell called a “time” of illusion has become a stark and grinding reality, with no end in sight. National politics have unmoored themselves from the concerns of ordinary people, replaced by a shoddy television production that fools no one but the pancaked nincompoops performing in it. Worse, following the embarrassing media failure that allowed an unfit candidate like Nixon to be not just elected, but resoundingly reelected, that same media subsequently doubled down on its credulity in the name of “balance,” which led us, inevitably, to our first Idiot in Chief, and the string of calamities that ensued.
Now, If I were one of those media courtiers who once waxed lyrical about the First Basket or the raw sex appeal of Donald Rumsfeld, I would of course by now be wanting to cover that up like a cat in a litter box, but I couldn’t, credibly, so what to do? Well, wrapping the Presidency in imperial trappings and droit de signeur is a good place to start, and today’s ceremonies went a long way toward accomplishing that dubious end.
The difference between 1975 and today are enough to make one long for the days of sparkly popcorn ceilings and bellbottoms; Nixon resigned in disgrace and most of his flunkies served time. Once upon a time, we were able to look forward and back at the same time, but that ability seems to have escaped us in the new century, as President Obama made so uncomfortably clear today.
The symbiotic relationship between the Imperial Presidency and the shamelessly captured media that purports to cover it has created an endless loop of errant nonsense, up to and including a ridiculous failure of a barely literate President opening his “Library” without any loud guffaws, let alone a deserved hail of footwear.
If the decline of American democracy ever has to be condensed into a one-hour time slot, as it almost inevitably will, today will still rate at least a two-minute segment.
U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements.