Perhaps it was George Kent’s bow tie, which looked like it was paying homage to Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, but a dramatic day of testimony on Capitol Hill sent the mind back to one of the more compelling vignettes to emerge from that earlier scandal.
Richard Nixon was relaxing, in his own fashion, with West Wing hatchet man Charles Colson and imagining the joyful day when he would have payback against the diverse enemies arrayed against him. “One day we’ll get them—we’ll get them on the ground where we want them,” Nixon rhapsodized. “And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist, right Chuck?”
An impeachment inquiry is a constitutional exercise, a vindication of checks and balances, a living expression of rule of law. Yes, yes, sure—all of that. But the start of public hearings Wednesday was a reminder of what impeachment really is in the modern presidency: A brutal exercise in psychological exposure.
There was breaking news from the hearings, but it was mostly a matter of detail. There was a new anecdote from diplomat William Taylor Jr. about Trump allegedly haranguing a subordinate to keep up the pressure on Ukraine to investigate the Biden family. This was a validation of the existing narrative rather than a fundamental twist of plot.
In a more profound way, the day was a portrait—a vivid one, in an especially grave setting—of Trump being Trump: obsessive, hectoring, contemptuous of process and propriety, as bluntly transactional about military aid to a besieged ally as he would be about a midtown real estate deal.
In that sense, this latest impeachment exercise fits neatly with the modern history of White House scandal. Presidents tend to be prosecuted for being themselves—men of compulsive and agitated ambition and need.
Sometimes historians speculate about what kind of president Nixon would have been like if his positive features—the canny operator in global politics—could have been detached from the noxious ones, the crudeness and paranoia. The same fantasy can be indulged with Bill Clinton—if his powerful gifts of persuasion and illumination were somehow delinked from his addiction to seduction and indiscipline in personal affairs.
The answer of course is that such an outcome is inconceivable. In every case, the scandals were projections of fundamental character, springing from the same inner drives that vaulted them to success in the first place.
Taylor nodded to this in his opening statement. He recounted being aghast at how military aid to Ukraine was being withheld to extract a statement from new Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky on a publicly announced probe of Hunter Biden. Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador the European Union who was also immersed in the negotiation, “tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman,” Taylor said. “When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.”
The clash of values and mindset could not have been sharper. Taylor, a career public servant, reminded Sondland that, “the Ukrainians did not ‘owe’ Trump anything.”
The coming weeks will likely also offer a window into the other great continuity of presidential scandal from Watergate to Lewinsky to Ukraine. That is the need for presidents to project confidence and control when the very nature of an impeachment inquiry underscores that they have lost control.
The news has been full of reports lately about Trump’s “isolation,” “anger,” “frustration,” and “rage”—toward Democrats, toward the media, toward his own team for failing to bring Democrats and the media to heel. And the White House’s internal recriminations are flowing in both directions. “Frustrated Trump allies urge him to stop talking about himself,” my colleague Anita Kumar wrote earlier this week, in one example of the genre.
The effort to project control recalls the scene in “Animal House,” in which the ROTC parade commander, surrounded by chaos, vainly shouts, “Remain calm! All is well!”
At the Trump White House Wednesday, press secretary Stephanie Grisham assured reporters that Trump was too busy to dignify the impeachment inquiries by paying attention: “Not watching. He’s working.” Trump, meanwhile, did manage to squeeze in a few moments to fire off a new barrage of tweets denouncing the proceedings. “New hoax. Same swamp,” he wrote.
This contradiction, too, fits into a long presidential tradition.
“One year of Watergate is enough,” Nixon pronounced piously at his State of the Union address in January 1974. Congress, the federal courts, the new media, and, ultimately, the public decided that it wasn’t quite enough—they wanted seven more months until the 37 th president faced the inevitable and resigned.
Clinton had the opposite outcome—his public approval rose so steadily that Jay Leno joked that, Clinton was doing so well in the polls, “he is already planning his next sex scandal.”
His ultimate success in the impeachment drama of 1998 and 1999 reflected both a forgiving public appraisal of his behavior and his ability to project that he was “a compartmentalizer,” in the phrase his aides invoked at that time. Clinton supposedly left the defense to his lawyers and focused on public business, and for the most part avoided the relentless drive against him by Republicans in Congress.
In that sense, his approach was the exact opposite of Trump’s. But make no mistake: Compartmentalization was largely an illusion. Behind the scenes in the Oval Office and West Wing, Clinton was often distracted by fear, embarrassment over his private failings and rage over what he regarded as a supremely illegitimate effort to make them public in a campaign to reverse the results of an election.
Someday, if Trump and Clinton ever repeat the golf outings they used to share, they will have plenty to talk about in their shared experiences.
One thing they both know: Impeachment is not merely an inquiry into presidential misconduct. It is a violent intrusion into intimate regions of presidential psychology. There is no way to compartmentalize that.