Carl Bernstein will always be known as the journalist who brought down a president whose disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law disqualified the errant executive from completing a second term in the White House. And Bernstein still gets a round of applause when mention is made of the role he played, as part of a Washington Post investigative team that also included Bob Woodward, in exposing the high crimes and misdemeanors of a president named Nixon.
But 33 years after Nixon resigned in order to avoid an inevitable impeachment -- on August 9, 1974 -- Bernstein is more concerned about a president named Bush.
When we appeared together recently at The Aspen Institute's first symposium on the political reporting of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Bernstein recalled the old stories of when he and Thompson were busy revealing the sordid details of Nixon's presidency.
But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was under no illusions regarding the extent of Nixon's wrongdoing as compared with that of Bush and those around the current president.
Bernstein says that Bush's presidency has produced far more "disastrous consequences" for the country than did Nixon's.
Unlike the often crude and conniving but unquestionably intelligent and highly-engaged 37th president, Bernstein says of Bush: "He's lazy, arrogant and has little curiosity. He's a catastrophe..."
But that is not the worst part of the Bush era as compared to the Nixon era, explains Bernstein.
What has made this time dramatically more troubling, the 63-year-old journalist explains, is that "there is no oversight."
"The system worked in Watergate," Bernstein told the Denver Post.
Even after Nixon was reelected in a 49-state landslide in 1972, Bernstein said, the president was checked and balanced in the manner intended by the founders of the American experiment.
The news media investigated Nixon, and editorialized boldly when the president's lawless behaviors were exposed.
The Congress responded to those revelations with hearings and demands for White House tapes and documents. When the materials were not forthcoming, Congress went to court to force Nixon and his aides to meet those demands.
The courts responded by aggressively and consistently upholding the authority of Congress to call the president to account.
And when it became clear that Nixon was governing in contradiction to the Constitution, the U.S. House took appropriate action, with Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voting for three articles of impeachment. Congressional Republicans, led by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, then went to the White House to inform their party's president that he stood little chance of thwarting an impeachment vote by the full House or surviving a trial in the Senate.
Nixon resigned and so ended a constitutional crisis created by a president's disregard for the rule of law -- a crisis that was cured by an impeachment move by House members who respected their oaths of office.
Today, says Bernstein, the system that worked in the 1970s is failing as the country witnesses presidential and vice presidential misdeeds that former White House counsel John Dean has correctly characterized as "worse than Watergate."
Referring to the media, congressional and judicial oversight that is essential to maintaining a republic, Bernstein says, "That hasn't happened here."
That failure of oversight, as opposed to any wrongdoing by George Bush or Dick Cheney, is the great tragedy of our time. But, as I reminded the crowd at the symposium during a discussion of Hunter Thompson's enthusiasm for Nixon's impeachment, it is never too late for the people to lead. Approval ratings for the current president and vice president are now below those for Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. And more and more members of Congress are taking up the call for accountability -- boldly sponsoring and cosponsoring the impeachment resolutions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had tried to keep "off the table.".
Bernstein is right. The system has not worked up to now. But with 18 months to go, it is certainly not too late for Americans to demand that the medicine that cured the Constitutional crisis of 33 years ago should again be applied.
John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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