Like most sentient adults, between my bouts of general alarm at the lurching incompetence of the Obama administration I have been enjoying little nibbles at the cornucopia of Schadenfreude it offers. Particularly amusing are the parallels between Obama’s response to some of the recent scandals that have plagued his administration — above all, the still-unfolding scandal of the IRS targeting political opponents of the Obama administration — and Richard Nixon’s response in the early days of the Watergate scandal. Steve Hayward at Powerline points to a video montage, at once amusing and upsetting, that juxtaposes the two leaders’ embarrassing evasive maneuvers: “I only know what you know.” “I just heard about this from a news report.” “What my press secretary said matched the reports I heard.” “As president, I am not going to let myself be distracted by these politically motivated side issues.” Etc. Take a moment to watch the video. The parallels are striking.
At the same time, it’s important to note that Obama is not Nixon. For one thing, Nixon, whatever his flaws, was a great president. No creditable witness is saying that about Barack Obama. (As one wag put it, comparing Obama to Nixon is an insult . . . to Nixon.) For another, verbal echoes can obscure the historical chasms that separate one period, and one personality, from another. Harold Nicolson, in his little jewel of a book on the Congress of Vienna, was right to warn that “We can learn little from history unless we first realise that she does not, in fact, repeat herself. Events are not affected by analogies; they are determined by the combinations of circumstance.” What forces and contingencies conspire to determine those combinations it is the task of the historian to limn.
That said, I continue to believe that we are living through a sort of revolution, one of those yeasty times that Karl Marx called a “plastic hour” in which many of our assumptions about the way our lives will unfold are up for fundamental renegotiation. Institutions whose nature we had taken for granted are in the process of thoroughgoing redefinition. No one’s crystal ball is sufficiently clairvoyant to tell us where it all will end. But it seems clear that Obama’s legacy is no more immune to these forces than any other aspect of our social and political life. Scandals are accumulating like dust bunnies around the president. Long gone is the “Yes We Can,” “promise-you-anything” candidate who found himself cheered when he said he was only a few days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” We’ve had a little preview of what such a transformation might look like, and most people find it pretty scary.
Of course, it is no easy matter to get one’s bearings. Discriminating between what is essential and what is epiphenomenal is tricky. What is more important, the scandal that was the administration’s handling of the terrorist attacks in Benghazi or the possibility that an administration would deploy the Internal Revenue Service to harass its ideological opponents? I do not know. But the cracks in the edifice of Obama’s calm seem to me to have a House-of-Usher aspect about them. We still haven’t gotten to the bottom of the IRS or the Benghazi stories and won’t, I suspect, for some little while. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if big changes were nigh. Who knows what the precipitating event will be? It might be something apparently innocuous. Another mot from Harold Nicolson: “Some seemingly vast event may drop into the pool of time and arouse no more than a sudden momentary splash; a pebble may fall into the pool and create a ripple which, as it widens and extends, can stir the depths.” Stand by.