The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Lessons of Nixon’s Departure”– Prof. Hadley Arkes in National Review Online

by James Wilson Institute on August 7, 2014

Writing in National Review Online, Prof. Hadley Arkes discusses the question “did the Nixon scandal and his impeachment really vindicate ‘the rule of law’?”

Some excerpts: 

“We are marking this week the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation, with the helicopter lifting him away from the White House and out of Washington. In one of those ever-recurring anniversaries of Watergate, Tom Brokaw delivered himself of the judgment that the scandal and the impeachment of Richard Nixon vindicated ‘the rule of law.’ The truth that apparently dare not speak its name is that the lesson has been quite the reverse. For the telling, formal mark of a rule of law is that those who lay down the laws governing others should be willing to regard those same laws as binding on themselves. When the matter is cast as a ‘precedent’ for legislators or judges, the question is whether people are willing to respect the principle they invoked in their earlier decision, even when it cuts against the side they favor now.”  

“Bill Bennett and I raised the simple question of whether the people who had persuaded themselves of [those accusations Nixon was charged with] in 1973–74 would respect them now when those charges cut against a president they regarded as their own. The record speaks amply for itself. Whatever else was accomplished 40 years ago in driving Mr. Nixon from office, it did not turn out to be the rebirth of a dedication to the ‘rule of law.’ But was it a just judgment, nevertheless, at the time? If we look again at the laundry list of charges, what springs out is the recognition that these charges could have been made against many presidents before and since Nixon.”

“It will never be out of season, in that respect, to look again at Victor Lasky’s classic, It Didn’t Start with Watergate. For we were reminded there of the egregious cases of wiretapping and surveillance on the part of Nixon’s predecessors. The most inexcusable, the hardest to justify, were the recordings of the private life of Martin Luther King Jr., ordered and sustained by John and Robert Kennedy, and savored by Lyndon Johnson. But a clearer political motive for wiretaps came when Johnson had the FBI tap the phones of potential adversaries during the Democratic Convention of 1964. He would go on to tap people involved in the Goldwater campaign, followed four years later by surveillance of the Nixon campaign. Tom Wicker would later offer the backhanded compliment that Nixon, as a Republican, at least used a private operation to do the burgling and tapping rather than ‘perverting the FBI’ — i.e., rather than annexing to his political purposes the policing arms of the government. The editors of the New York Times were finally candid enough to make the connection: The wiretapping by LBJ in 1964 could constitute, they thought, an ‘even graver offense than the original Watergate break-in, for it represented the turning of a police instrument of Government to illegal activities for political purposes.’ ”

“What Watergate reveals, then, more surely 40 years later, is the character of a political class on the Left that could give no account of the principled ground on which it would seek and exercise power over others.”

Read the whole piece here

Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790