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WASHINGTON — One of the few bonuses of longevity for an old reporter is having covered Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal of the early 1970s and now Donald Trump’s Ukraine dust-up.
Each president faced impeachment, but Nixon beat the rap by resigning. Trump now hopes to survive through blind loyalty of the Republicans in the Senate, who are expected to harpoon near-certain indictment by the Democratic House.
Watergate was highly dramatic, as is the Ukraine scandal, with scoops and leaks dramatically changing the field of play. But to this aged observer they are colored as much as personal involvements that not always found their way into my newspaper stories of the time.
For example, on the day Nixon White House aide Alexander Butterfield dropped the bombshell that Nixon had secret tapes documenting some of his most damning behavior, I covered the Capitol Hill hearing lying flat my back in the press room on the floor below. Hung over from attending an anniversary garden party the night before in honor of losing Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, I monitored the televised testimony and managed to meet my Washington Post deadline with none the wiser.
On another occasion, movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who were portraying Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in “All the President’s Men,” materialized in The Post newsroom, and female reporters and clerks swooned.
These and other less exotic experiences I had covering Nixon’s checkered career suggest contrasts to the highs and lows of the Trump era. For one thing, I can testify that no two politicians I have encountered could be more different in their relations with normal folk than Nixon and Trump.
On the campaign trail with Nixon, I quickly perceived his discomfort and awkwardness with unknown people in contrast to his mask of self-confidence. Once, at Christmastime when he was president-elect, I took my family to Florida with me and introduced my then eight-year-old daughter Amy to him.
For some painful seconds, neither said a word. Finally, the great man offered: “I guess you were glad I was elected president, so you could come to Florida.” When he walked off, she observed: “Gee, he was nervous. He didn’t know what to say to me.”
I have never observed anything like that quality in Trump. I grew up as a street kid in the New York area and hence have been familiar with the jargon and manners of Big Apple hucksters on the make. Trump is transparently ruthless in his objectives. Nixon was ruthless as well, but in my long experience with him he was often courteous and transparently wanted to be liked. Once on a trip when he was out of office, I overslept and raced to the airport, finding his donated private jet sitting on the runway. When I boarded, and apologized for delaying him, he courteously dismissed it. But later, an aide told me: “We wanted to leave without you, but he said, ‘No, he’s the only reporter we’ve got.’ “
Far from being what used to be called a ladies’ man, Nixon was one-woman man whose wife, Pat, as he once put it, was the kind of lady who preferred a good Republican cloth coat. At worst, Nixon lived any sexual fantasies vicariously. His friend the former California Congressman Pat Hillings, who often traveled with him, would join me at the hotel bar after seeing him to bed with cookies and milk. The next morning, Hillings once told me, Nixon would grill him: “Where did you go? Did you pick up any girls? Did you score?”
In terms of sheer despicability as a human being, Richard Nixon never held a candle to Donald Trump. And, more important, Nixon never posed the threat to the American constitutional order that the man now in the Oval Office does daily. Nor is there any comparison between Nixon’s seriousness and Trump’s demonstrable ignorance of world affairs and irresponsibility toward the global community of nations.
I would not say Trump has made Nixon look good; rather, he shows the ways in which Nixon could have been worse.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.