As reporters drag themselves from one Trump word salad to the next, and trial ballons about Trump’s replacement lie as limp as hound dogs on southern porches in August, it’s worth remembering the last time thinking persons watched with horrid fascination at what politics had wrought during the dog days of summer. Richard M. Nixon left the White House in disgrace on August 9, 1974.
He wrote to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States.” With those ten words, months of speculation by journalists and senior politicians came to an end. It is worth noting that the types of “pundits” that we have grown used to on cable news didn’t exist at the time of Nixon because cable news did not exist: while the word has its origin in the Sanskrit to refer to an expert in a given field, one of the effects of the Nixon presidency was to turn the presidency into a spectacle that has led a reality star/huckster salesman to think that he was qualified to be a national party candidate. The Greek chorus of no-nothing pundits on cable news were put in place in the decade after Nixon, another effect of Watergate.
Donald Trump is the wastrel son of Richard Nixon. The trajectory of the mainstream news coverage of Donald Trump as serious candidate, and the significance of the break-in at the Watergate office complex bear certain similarities. Neither attracted much serious attention. In the case of Trump, his intention to run was treated with derision by most cable, network, and print journalism reporters. Responses ranged from “Oh, look. Donald’s thinking about running again,” to scenarios of other “fantasy” jobs for Trump.
As Matt Taibbi wrote for Rolling Stone:
“A pre-2015 Trump fantasy was probably something like romping with models after simultaneously winning the Nobel Prizes for Peace, Literature and Physics (they love me in Sweden – scientists were amazed by the size of my skyscraper!). He almost certainly would have been grossed out by a Ghost-of-Christmas-Future-style image of his 2015 self being feted by crowds of rifle-toting white power nerds.”
But as the other Republican candidates left the race like beaten dogs, Trump still not gracious in the face of their defeat, holding the whip hand high as he chased “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco” off the national stage, the national media began to recognize that Donald Trump was going to be the party’s candidate.
After months of allowing Trump to make statements without challenge from reporters; after months of Trump deciding to ban certain reporters from news conferences because he didn’t like their questions; after months of Trump stirring up racial resentments, ethnic, religious hatreds and stoking xenophobic hatred, it may have finally dawned on the media that Trump was not speaking to some small part of the electorate, Trump’s candidacy was real. And perhaps, the “objective” ideals of journalism were not the proper tools with which to approach a Trump candidacy.
Perhaps reporters had needed to be more Hunter Thompson, Matt Taibbi, and Joy-Ann Reid, and less Wolf Blitzer, David Gregory, and Chuck Todd. Of course, Hunter S. Thompson had pointed this out to journalists during a summer almost exactly like this 42 years prior, when the nation was paralyzed while waiting to see who would blink first: President Nixon, who had been ordered by the Special Prosecutor to turn over hours of secretly recorded tapes of conversations in the Oval Office, or Congress, which was writing Articles of Impeachment, but which was waiting for the tapes in order to finish making its case.
“Watergate” had begun as a burglary of Democratic National Headquarters in the summer of 1972. By the summer of 1974, it had been revealed to be a full-blown conspiracy that involved President Richard M. Nixon, who had won re-election in November, 1972 in a landslide, but who by summer of 1974 had begun to look like a Mafia Don surrounded by Capos who worked in the White House, some in the Cabinet, who had “rat-fucked” their political enemies, including members of Congress and the press. (Those seeking a full chronology of the Watergate story should start here, a site put together by the Australian government to educate students about the history of Watergate.)
While many rightly credit Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post with doing the old-fashioned, investigative reporting that brought the machinations to light, their investigation was reliant upon the information they were being fed by a whistleblower code-named “Deep Throat.” Those articles appeared over a period of time, and, combined with the Watergate Hearings, which pre-empted everything else on television and were broadcast for weeks, slowly revealed to the nation just what its president and his cronies had been up to.
By late July, the country was exhausted. Even the Supreme Court, which normally goes on its summer hiatus after delivering a series of opinions in the summer, had refused to close up in case it needed to make a ruling on whether Nixon should be forced to turn over the tapes he had been subpoenaed to do so.
Over at Rolling Stone however, Hunter S. Thompson had harsh words for fellow journalists who had adhered to some notion of “objective” journalism. “I still insist ‘objective journalism’ is a contradiction in terms.” he wrote to his boss at RS, Jan Wenner. Journalists have inherent biases, and they will always look around a scene for details that match the fact of their biases. And Thompson had witnessed those inherent biases when other reporters were reporting on Nixon. Because there had never been another Nixon — whom Thompson got into a fight with Wenner because Thompson wanted to call into doubt whether Nixon was even “human” — reporters had not known how to use their training in journalism to write about him.
Thompson was so aghast at Nixon’s activities that he frequently compared his regime to that of the Third Reich. And he was criticized for it. As it became increasingly clear that Nixon had wanted
to run the country as his personal fiefdom, Thompson became increasingly angry at how the rest of the press had blown it.
“Probably not, I think, because nobody in his right mind would take a thing like that seriously — and especially not that gang of senile hags who run the Columbia Journalism Review, who have gone to considerable lengths in every issue during the past year or so to stress, very heavily, that nothing I say should be taken seriously.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” George Bernard Shaw said that, for good or ill, and I only mention it here because I’m getting goddamn tired of being screeched at by waterheads. Professors are a sour lot, in general, but professors of journalism are especially rancid in their outlook because they have to wake up every morning and be reminded once again of a world they’ll never know.”
In “Fear and Loathing in Washington,” he points out that in 1972, after the break-in, “71% of the newspapers in this country endorsed Richard Nixon for a second term in the White House.” Thompson thought that everyone — the press, the Republican establishment — had been slow to recognize the viper masquerading as candidate for president. As he said of one senior Republican, “[He] … could understand all the facts of a scene like that, but not the Reality.”
But Thompson argued that while the “savage reality” was too much for the old Republican Guard to see, others should have. In one of the more “Gonzo” descriptions that Thompson was famous for, he described it as:
“It was like showing up at the White House for your monthly chat with The President on some normal afternoon and finding the Oval Office full of drunken Hell’s Angels .. and The President so stoned on reds that he can’t even recognize you, babbling distractedly and shoveling big mounds of white powder around on his desk with the butt of a sawed-off shotgun.”
What really pissed Thompson off, when the article was published in July of 1974, was that Nixon has almost gotten away with it. Worse, the press, which Thompson argued has been asleep through most of the Nixon presidency, had now woken up, and were involved in paroxyms of self-congratulation that they had done their job and exposed the president and his criminal enterprise. Thompson was pissed, because he had seen Nixon for what he was from the beginning, and he had been labeled as “not a real journalist” by those in the establishment press corps.
Now, it is our own dog days of August. Each day, we hear more and more about what Donald Trump intends to do if he is president. We have heard about his basic lack of knowledge of what nuclear weapons do and the consequences of nuclear strikes. We have heard him ramp up anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Black Lives Matter, anti-women rhetoric. We have heard him ask the Russian spy apparatus to use its power to hack into the State Department to “find” Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. We have heard him invoke “law and order” in ways that suggest no-knock warrants and militarized police. But this rhetoric is not new. He has been saying much of this since the beginning of his campaign. So, where was the “serious” reporting about Donald Trump and these frightening positions? Most of it was buried under the sort of point-and-laugh-at-the-clown pieces that journalists wrote about Donald Trump.
Matt Taibbi has, as Rolling Stone‘s correspondent, been following Trump around for eighteen months. Taibbi also pointed out that the media’s “objective” coverage wasn’t equipped to report on this campaign. First, because the media does not know how to report on any candidate who presents ideas that the press considers to be “out there,” and because the press uses shorthand because it assumes that the public is too dumb to follow the intricacies of campaign politics.
“Instead, people were influenced by shorthand terms we in the press cooked up that, whether we realized it or not, were both inaccurate and rhetorically weighted toward the status quo,” he writes. The consequence of “objectivity” was to push forward the status quo candidate. And, because the press have assumed that what interests the people on the bus or plane with the candidates is what interests the population of America, they have been radically out of sync with the electorate.
“America instead is a place where a huge plurality of the population is underemployed, pissed off, in debt and barely keeping their heads above water. A good 15 percent or so are not even doing that well, sitting below the poverty line, living in homes without adequate heat, sanitation or food. That portion of America doesn’t appear anywhere in campaign coverage, not even as background.”
Thus, we find ourselves in similar positions in August of 2016 as we found ourselves in August of 1974. The press, which was envisioned as the watchdog that would alert the American public to danger that may cloak itself in the disguise of political candidate, was mollified by a big, juicy bone. In both cases, the press didn’t take what it was seeing with its own eyes seriously. It told itself that by objective standards, the facts of the craziness that it was witnessing simply could not be true. Richard Nixon could not be as corrupt and criminal as he was. Donald Trump was just a reality star who was running for president as a publicity stunt — he didn’t needed to be taken seriously. Why not cover his campaign 24/7 and make lots of money off the increased ratings? All the time that he preached a doctrine of divisiveness and hate, the press seemed to shake its head and assure itself that only something it labeled the “white working class” took this seriously.
But now, as most of the country sits under stultifying heat, and the Republican party lies in tatters on the ground, the press casts about, waiting for Donald Trump to finally announce that the joke’s over and he’s stepping down, or else that another Republican candidate will arise to challenge him.
Out here, all I can hear is the maddening whirr of cicadas as I sweat during these hot August days.