President Richard Nixon speaks near Orlando, Fla. to the Associated Press Managing Editors annual meeting, Nov. 17, 1973. Nixon told the APME “I am not a crook.”
Nixon was far worse than we thought,” argue Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. As the two investigative journalists who broke open the real story of the Watergate break-in and the Nixon White House, they ought to know.
June 17, 2012 is the fortieth anniversary of Watergate, and Woodward and Bernstein have provided a critical reassessment that is important not only for understanding American history, but also understanding American life today.
When I was a college student protesting the Vietnam War, speculation ran rife among those of us committed to non-violent protest that despite our peaceful actions we were being spied on by our government. Yet, once again Woodward and Bernstein have managed to educate and shock me at the same time in their descriptions of the “War against the antiwar movement.” The willingness of the Nixon administration to engage in illegal activity in spying of Americans went far beyond what I ever feared.
From the standpoint of theology, however, I believe the worst legacy of Richard Nixon is the soul-destroying hatred that he himself described and that he bequeathed to the nation. Nixon makes this clear in his farewell speech, and Woodward and Bernstein quote Nixon’s astonishing insight into the destructive nature of hatred.
“Always remember,” he [Nixon] said, “others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Yes, Nixon saw he had destroyed himself, but he also bequeathed a politics of hatred to the country that is still destroying us at the most fundamental level. This is a soul-destroying hatred of one another; the idea that it is not enough to simply achieve one’s policy aims in politics, it is necessary to obliterate the other side.
I believe that nations, like individuals, have souls. “The soul of a nation, like the soul of an individual, is the root from which decency arises; it is the basis of any desire to behave according to our collectively expressed values.” And as Woodward and Bernstein show, Nixon attacked our most cherished national value: the rule of law: “At its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.”
The motivation for this attack was not merely winning, as Nixon himself admitted. The motivation was hatred. And it is hatred that is the national soul-destroying legacy of Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon was a master of playing off one group of Americans against another; this has caused historian Richard Perlstein to describe our country as “Nixonland, a nation where ‘two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.’” Nixon realized that political power in an enduring sense could be gained from making Americans permanently resent and even fear each other. He “stoked the fires of discontent to shape an enduring conservative majority.”
Perlstein ultimately labels this the “politics of anger” and his argument is very persuasive that “Nixon’s polarizing impact was profound and long-lasting.”
Anger that is “profound and long-lasting,” however, is best described as hatred.
Hatred is a deep-seated aversion to either individuals or groups that goes well beyond anger, though it is born in anger. Hatred is anger that has cooked so long it has become deep-seated and irrational and no “facts” will suffice to change the views of the hater.
Americans hating each other all the time is exhausting, as energy that could be devoted to constructive change gets diverted into hating. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this well, and said that he had decided to “stick with love” because “hate is too great a burden to bear.” King had often seen “too much hate. I have seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of too many Klansmen…and every time I see it, I know it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.”
The face, of course, is often called the window on the soul. And this window showed Dr. King souls that were mangled, twisted by hatred.
Soul-destroying hatred is too high a price for any nation to pay for political power.
As Jesus asked, “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and still lose your soul?” (Mark 8:36)
We should therefore judge our political candidates and political parties on whether they pursue a politics of love and justice, or a politics of hatred. Then, and only then, can we as Americans finally escape the legacy of Richard Nixon.