Ah, Richard Nixon. It seems he—and the mystery of his character and crimes—will haunt us forever. This past week, his cold, clammy hand emerged from the grave to reach out and touch another election. This one.
There was a strange column by the Times' Paul Krugman, which strained beyond the bounds of credibility to make the case that Obama's supporters were engaged in Nixonian politics "of slander and scare … the politics of hatred."
And shortly before that, Jerome Zeifman, a longtime Clinton critic who was one of Hillary's bosses on the committee that recommended Nixon's impeachment back in 1974, charged that Hillary was guilty of unethical, Nixonian behavior during her service on the committee.
The charges serve as a reminder that—fairly or unfairly—Hillary Clinton has become the kind of political figure whose conduct and character are at least as enigmatic and divisive—if not as demonstrably illegitimate—as Richard Nixon's.
Zeifman has been harping on Hillary's alleged Impeachment Committee misconduct since the mid-'90s, and when his charges appeared on the right-leaning Web site Accuracy in Media last week, they didn't get much mainstream play.
Nonetheless, they are worth examining for two reasons: First, they remind us that the conflicting picture of Hillary Clinton extends back to her very beginnings in public service. (Indeed, her 1974 service as a junior staff lawyer on the House judiciary committee's Nixon impeachment panel comes at the very beginning of the "35 years of experience" she so often cites.) And secondly, the charges remind us just how unresolved the conflicting images of Richard Nixon remain and how the Impeachment Committee's failure to resolve a key issue—whether Nixon actually ordered, rather than merely helped cover up, the Watergate break-in—has contributed to his unearned rehabilitation in some quarters. Whatever the nature of Hillary's conduct on the Impeachment Committee, the committee itself failed to find out the full truth about Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate, thus perpetuating what I regard as Nixon's final lie. The one he took to his grave, the one that much of the media—scandalously, without examining it closely—still accepts.
Thus the Zeifman charges, regardless of their weight and motive, open up a can of worms, slippery, squirmy historical issues that even, as we shall see, drag in John F. Kennedy, who has become a kind of patron saint of the Obama campaign.
Before I read the Zeifman charges, I had wondered why, in her recent recitals of her "35 years of experience," Hillary didn't often mention her time on the impeachment panel—although on reflection I realized that perhaps her bitter later experience with her husband's impeachment may have soured her on the process, even on the word impeachment. After all, Nixon, it should be remembered, never was impeached; he resigned before it could happen. But Bill Clinton was both impeached and tried.
Instead, Hillary starts the 35-year clock with her experience at the Yale Child Study Center, the place she revisited—and had her second "tearing up" moment at—shortly before Super Tuesday. This is Hillary I, the idealistic believer in helping and healing children. I've always believed that, no matter what else you think about Hillary, this idealistic part of her is real; it's still there, whatever else the cynicism of politics (and her husband) have robbed from her.
I say this as someone who tutored a developmentally challenged child at that Yale facility myself (as part of a psych course requirement; I'm not claiming I would have done it otherwise) and experienced the aura of idealistic and altruistic purity that pervaded the old wooden walk-up it was housed in at the time. Whatever you think of the first, pre-New Hampshire "tearing up" episode, I think this second tearing up at Yale was sincere. She may have been mourning the loss of the person she was back then.
So that's Hillary I. Then there's Hillary II. This is the Hillary who played the cattle futures markets as Arkansas' first lady, allowing a lawyer for the largest employer in the state to "advise" her on futures trades in a manner that brought her remarkable profits—and a lot of questions about how they were made. This is the Hillary who never convincingly explained the disappearance—and mysterious reappearance—of those pesky billing records at her Arkansas law firm that were sought by a grand jury during the Whitewater investigation. (No, she's never been indicted for any of this, but that's not exactly the highest standard). Hillary II is the Hillary who dissembled for years about Bill's other women. Hillary II is not the dewy-eyed idealist, but the shrewd Machiavellian many see her as now.
Still, I'd always thought that her work on the Impeachment Committee was an unambiguously shining moment of her career: Hillary I enters politics. Even if, as I believe, the committee failed to find out the full truth of Nixon's Watergate crimes, the Big Truth (I'll get to that), she was a junior staffer, and any such failings surely weren't her fault. And even if the committee failed to find Nixon guilty of the primal crime of Watergate, ordering the break-in, the committee demonstrated that America was a nation in which a reigning president had to submit to the rule of law, where the commander in chief could be challenged and forced to leave office by constitutional means, not coups.
I covered the impeachment hearings to the bitter end when Nixon resigned in August 1974. (I was in the East Room of the White House when he "teared up" making his farewell before coptering off to exile.) I have no memory of seeing young Hillary Rodham in the hearing room, but I remember thinking at the time of the Impeachment Committee staff as heroic seekers of truth.
But Hillary's boss on the staff, Jerome Zeifman, asserts now that one reason she's downplayed her Impeachment Committee service is that she has something to hide.
He accuses her of "unethical" conduct, says that "Hillary … lied to me" and that she was a pawn in a Kennedy-orchestrated conspiracy to manipulate the impeachment hearings. And he claims he has a witness to corroborate this characterization:
"After President Nixon's resignation," Zeifman writes, "a young lawyer, who shared an office with Hillary, confided in me that he was dismayed by her erroneous legal opinions and efforts to deny Nixon representation by counsel—as well as an unwillingness to investigate Nixon. In my diary of August 12, 1974 I noted the following:
'John Labovitz apologized to me for the fact that months ago he and Hillary had lied to me' [to conceal rules changes and dilatory tactics]. Labovitz said, "That came from Yale." I said, "You mean Burke Marshall [Sen. Ted Kennedy's chief political strategist, with whom Hillary regularly consulted in violation of House rules]. Labovitz said, "Yes." His apology was significant to me, not because it was a revelation but because of his contrition.' "
The "dilatory tactics" Zeifman alleges were part of what he portrays as a Kennedy clan strategy to stretch out the impeachment hearings (which ended in August '74, when the so-called "smoking gun" tape—which revealed Nixon attempting to use the CIA to cover up a White House connection to the break-in—caused Nixon to lose even hard-core GOP loyalist support and resign). Zeifman claims the Kennedy strategy was to keep Richard Nixon in office as long as possible so a liberal (perhaps a Kennedy) could run in 1976 against a Republican candidate weakened by the lingering Nixon scandals. *
Zeifman claims that to implement this strategy, Hillary attempted to revise the procedural rules for the Impeachment Committee, potentially opening up divisive delays. Zeifman also asserts that a "second objective of the strategy of delay was to avoid a Senate impeachment trial, in which as a defense Nixon might assert that Kennedy had authorized far worse abuses of power than Nixon's effort to 'cover up' the Watergate burglary (which Nixon had not authorized or known about in advance). In short, the crimes of Kennedy included the use of the Mafia to attempt to assassinate Castro, as well as the successful assassinations of Diem in Vietnam and Lumumba in the Congo."
Let us set aside, for a moment, the statement that "Nixon had not authorized or known about" the Watergate break-in in advance, a statement with which I emphatically disagree. And I have some doubts about the Kennedy conspiracy theory, and whether Hillary was a pawn in one.
But let us look a little closer at Zeifman's claim about the Diem and Lumumba assassinations. Few deny anymore that the Kennedy family—Jack and Bobby—were involved in plots to assassinate Castro. Their direct involvement in the Diem death is somewhat more in dispute. Most agree that, at the very least, JFK acceded to a coup against the South Vietnamese strongman Diem, although the historical record is not definitive over whether it was meant to include murder.
Indeed, one of the misdeeds of Nixon's illicit "plumber's squad" was E. Howard Hunt's forgery of cables intended to incriminate JFK in Diem's murder. Hunt did so because he couldn't find a real such cable. That doesn't mean real cables of that sort didn't exist at one time, but they haven't turned up, and the Nixonites were never able to prove that JFK directly ordered Diem's assassination.
These Castro and Diem assassination attempts are long-standing controversies, but I hadn't heard JFK linked to the Lumumba assassination before. When I looked into it, it turned out that Lumumba—the leftist leader of the newly decolonized Congo—was murdered several days before JFK's 1961 inauguration, when the Eisenhower-Nixon regime was still in power. And Larry Devlin, who was then the CIA station chief in the Congo, has said that it was Eisenhower who wanted Lumumba removed.
I e-mailed Zeifman about this, and he replied that he believed there had been pre-inauguration meetings between JFK and CIA head Allen Dulles in which various secret matters, including (Zeifman appears to believe) Lumumba's assassination were discussed, and JFK could have given assent then.
I'm not entirely convinced, but it is interesting how Camelot is still regarded by many as a shining monument, when—Lumumba or not—JFK was guilty of repeatedly attempting the murder of at least one head of state, Castro. Yes, Nixon was guilty of illicit schemes, break-ins, and lies during Watergate, but not attempted murder, and yet, who is regarded as the white knight? It's tricky separating myth and history.
The explanation I think is that Nixon never recovered from being—as it turned out—right about Alger Hiss when, in the 1940s, he led the congressional investigation into Hiss' alleged connection to a Soviet spy ring. It was his pursuit of the lies of establishment favorite and high-level State Department official Hiss that stained Nixon forever in much of the public mind. I believe this incident—in which he was pilloried when he knew he was right—probably helped engender the paranoia that we have come to call "Nixonian" and that ultimately led Nixon to believe he needed to pre-empt his enemies through the schemes that have come to be grouped under the term Watergate.
Meanwhile, the seamy and murderous underbelly of Camelot has failed to stain the JFK legend so that it is considered an honor for Obama to be compared to him. These confusions are the consequences of leaving the myths of history unchallenged. Which is why the Zeifman charges about Hillary, however minor they might seem, go to the question of who she was then and who the potential president is now.
I e-mailed the Clinton press office asking them if they had any response to the Zeifman charges, but as of this posting, there has been no response. (I'll be happy to update if one should come in.)
I must admit, I found myself taken aback at Zeifman's charges because I didn't think Hillary had lost her innocence that early—or even now had become as cynical as some now say she is.
But just last week, on the Sunday following Super Tuesday, Frank Rich, no right-wing attack dog, accused her of "a lie, and a bigoted lie at that" in her attempt to portray Hispanics as a group as hostile to blacks. And Rich characterizes her campaign as one that "will stop at little" and is "so ruthless that [it risks] shredding three decades of mutual affection with black America to win a primary."
In the past, I've had a kind of grudging admiration for Hillary Clinton's Machiavellian side; there is such a thing as idealistic Machiavellianism, the use of complex tactical manipulation to achieve noble idealistic goals.
But neither Zeifman nor Rich see her as idealistic so much as opportunistic at best, corrupt at worst. Will history sort it out? The example of the historical evolution (or failure of evolution) of the consensus opinion of Nixon-and-Hiss and Nixon-and-Watergate is instructive here.
It's fairly clear that Nixon was right and most of the liberal media (with the exception of a few clear-sighted writers such as the great Murray Kempton) were wrong about Hiss. Yet even some historians who write about Nixon still can't seem to assimilate this.
But having pilloried him unfairly in that case, the media largely let Nixon off the hook on a central element of his Watergate role. They've avoided looking at the new evidence on tapes released long after he left office, and, with few exceptions, have decided to accept Richard Nixon's word, his "public line" as he called it, that he had nothing to do with ordering the break-in to Democratic Party Watergate headquarters, only with being loyal to misguided, overzealous subordinates in helping them cover up their roles in the break-in. In other words, according to the consensus that Zeifman repeats and recent Nixon biographer Conrad Black endorses, Nixon was really impeached for being loyal to a fault.
I go into detail on the scandalous flawed history of Nixon's role here. Suffice it to say, posthumously revealed tapes tell a different story, one that I believe shows him guilty of ordering the break-in, not just covering it up. And thus our whole picture of one of the great American characters and his role in one of the most dramatic episodes in American political history has been obscured and distorted. Some Nixon historians such as Slate contributor David Greenberg have told me they've become increasingly persuaded by my argument, which should give us a new view of the final stages of Richard Nixon's life. He kept his guilty secret to himself—like Hiss!—took it to the grave, and was probably laughing inwardly at his enemies in the press who bought his "public line" (which was a public lie) the whole time.
Sometimes I wonder whether there is something almost unconscious going on with reporters who cover Nixon and Hillary. A historical splitting of the difference: the press making up for what it knows to be a collective failure in the Nixon/Hiss case by letting Nixon off the hook for full responsibility for Watergate. And the press "balancing" its now endemic assumption of Hillary's Machiavellianism by idealizing her past.
The lesson here seems to me to be that true history, true judgment of historical characters, is not made by making these trade-offs between past and present, by evening out erroneous past misjudgments by putting a thumb on the scale of the present consensus. Accurate history is not made by such compromises but by incorporating and assessing all facts to the extent possible.
Having said that, I must admit something I never thought I'd say: I find Hillary Clinton more of a mystery, perhaps a more complex character in a novelistic sense, than Richard Nixon. And she's one that, unlike Nixon, history may never completely figure out. I'd almost want to see her become president just to solve the mystery. Although a Hillary administration might actually compound it.
Correction, Feb. 19, 2008: This piece originally stated that Zeifman believed the Kennedys wanted to keep Nixon in office so it would be easy for a liberal to defeat him in the 1976 election. Nixon wasn't eligible to run for president in 1976; Zeifman believed the Kennedys wanted to keep Nixon around so that the Republican candidate would be weakened by the lingering Nixon scandals. (Return to the corrected sentence.)