Forty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon announced that he would resign effective the next day.
At the time, aside from a tiny minority of dead-enders and a few desultory Congressional Republicans, an exhausted nation had arrived at a consensus that Nixon had to go. Politics had become too toxic, distrust of government too profound, and – most of all – the seriousness of the president's crimes couldn't be ignored. Judicial sanction wasn't in Nixon's future — Jerry Ford's controversial pardon ensured that — but the ultimate political punishment, impeachment, seemed like the absolute minimum sanction in order to send the message that no man, no matter how powerful, was above the law. Nixon's resignation, Ford assured Americans and the media agreed, proved that the system works.
Looking back now at what felt like a national cataclysm, however, we probably ought to dig up Tricky Dicky's bones and beg him to accept our big fat apology.
Students of the Watergate scandal that led to that surreal day in August 1974 — the third day, expunged from history for fear of a repeat performance, when great crowds surrounded the White House, demanding that Nixon depart— will recall that it wasn't the botched 1972 break-in at Democratic national headquarters that did Nixon in, but the cover-up.
By today's standards, however, Nixon's efforts to protect his henchmen, including his screwing around with the FBI investigation that led to an article of impeachment for obstruction of justice, look positively penny-ante, more worthy of a traffic ticket than a high crime or misdemeanor. Obstruction of justice, scandalous and impeachable just 40 years ago, has become routine.
Case study: Obama's cover-up of torture.
Much bigger crime.
Much longer cover-up.
Much less of a problem.
Five and a half years after taking office, President Obama finally admitted what informed citizens have known since 2002: the United States tortures
Obama has been covering up Bush-era torture throughout his tenure. (Not the act of torture by Americans, which has been widely reported and has inspired best-selling books and hit movies, but the governmental admission that attracts widespread attention and eventually creates pressure for action.) And even now, after finally admitting that the U.S. ranks with Myanmar and North Korea when it comes to this most basic of human rights, Obama refuses to authorize a formal investigation and prosecution of America's torturers.
Bush's torturers shouldn't be hard to find: many of them are still working for the U.S. government, either force-feeding hunger-striking POWs at Gitmo or working for one of the branches specially exempted from Obama's "no torture" order.
"When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe – and I think any fair-minded person would believe – were torture, we crossed the line," Obama told a press conference last week.
Better late than never. But not much better. Because, like so much of Obama's rhetoric, they're empty words.
Normally, when one crosses a line – is there a more clearly disgusting line than torture? – one faces consequences. Thanks to Obama, however, no one from the CIA, US military or other American government employee has ever suffered so much as a 1% pay cut as the result of drowning detainees, many of whom were released because they never committed any crime whatsoever, sodomizing kidnap victims with flashlights and other objects, subjecting people to extremes of heat, cold and sleep deprivation – not even for murdering detainees or driving them to suicide at American-run torture centers like Guantánamo concentration camp.
Though Obama had repeatedly promised throughout the 2008 presidential campaign that he would investigate war crimes under the George W. Bush administration and prosecute anyone found to have committed torture, soon after moving into the White House in 2009 Obama backtracked and infamously said that it was time to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards" – in other words, there would never be a serious investigation.
That promise, he kept.
"At the CIA," Obama said in 2009, "you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don't want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got spend their all their time looking over their shoulders."
The president didn't explain why causing concern to torturers would be bad.
Lest there be any doubt about his intentions to kowtow to the national security police state, Obama even traveled to CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia to reassure nervous torturers that they would have nothing to fear from him. In 2011, Obama's Justice Department officially exonerated "anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees" — i.e., pretty much every U.S. government torturer.
Even now, while Obama is supposedly admitting that torture happened, he uses hokey countrified verbal constructions to diminish the horror while making excuses for those who committed them: "I understand why it happened. I think it's important, when we look back, to recall how afraid people were when the Twin Towers fell," Obama said, as though there had been a universal demand for indiscriminate torture against teenage goatherds from Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. "It's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had."
The torturers, you see, were the victims.
Incredibly, Obama added the following nugget to last week's some-folks-tortured-some-folks statement: "The character of our country has to be measured in part, not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard."
Richard Nixon covered up political dirty tricks and got impeached for it; Barack Obama is covering up torture and continues to authorize it with impunity.
It hardly seems fair. But when we measure Nixon's character against that of Obama's, we'll take note of the one who finally did the right thing and resigned.