Anyone who has ever looked at old film clips of Hitler rallies sees an enthusiastic audience listening to his every word. Adolf Hitler is extreme proof that deeply flawed men can be the chosen leaders of their country. (Even though Hitler was not actually elected, he still had the support of many of his countrymen.)
This week, we got a chance to look inside the mind of two flawed leaders of the United States. This week, nearly 200 hours of recorded conversations with Richard Nixon were released to the public. Some of the excerpts paint a picture of a deeply insecure, paranoid man. This is not exactly new news but the recently released tapes reinforce what we already knew about the 37th President. In this audio, some of which is transcribed by MSNBC below we hear Nixon’s order to destroy documents at the Brookings Institution:
— On July 1, 1971, Nixon instructs Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to have someone break into the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.:
“I can’t have a high-minded lawyer … I want a son-of-a-b—-. I want someone just as tough as I am. … We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy that will use any means. We are going to use any means… . Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institution cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that has somebody else take the blame.”
That excerpt had actually been released prior to this week but the latest tapes echo that same paranoia.
Fast forward 37 years and we see the following exchange between George W. Bush and Charles Gibson of ABC News:
GIBSON: You’ve always said there’s no do-overs as President. If you had one?
BUSH: I don’t know — the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that’s not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.
GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?
BUSH: Yes, because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld. In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.
GIBSON: No, if you had known he didn’t.
BUSH: Oh, I see what you’re saying. You know, that’s an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can’t do. It’s hard for me to speculate.
Notice how when Gibson asks Bush what he would have done had the intelligence been correct, Bush interprets the question to mean had reality matched the faulty intelligence, not that the intelligence itself reflected reality. To this day, Bush cannot accept that there were no WMD’s and his preferred outcome would be that there had been WMD’s, not that he would have gotten proper intelligence that there were none. When Gibson revisits the question more directly, Bush says he can’t speculate on what he would have done.
I’ve written before about the cognitive limitations of our President. Many liberal pundits are making great sport of Bush’s rewrite of history. I’m not sure I’m with that gang. I think Bush is a truly limited man for whom the presidency was much too tough a job.
As the press renews its attack on the long dead Nixon and the soon-to-be ex-president Bush, I can only feel sadness. When we elect a President, we get only one guarantee, namely that they will be flawed human beings, sometimes with devastating results. I don’t think Nixon or Bush wanted to do their country harm. I think they were trapped by the limitations of their own personalities.
While it is important that history make an example of them so that their successors might avoid similar mistakes, it is also important that history be a bit forgiving.