Donald J. Trump is giving Richard M. Nixon a bad name.
Yes, day by day, the 45th president seems to be ever more clearly emulating the only man to resign the White House. But in the end, Nixon’s demise in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal was sealed by a single inescapable conclusion, as his high crimes and misdemeanors were enumerated during the impeachment summer of 1974: Nixon clearly knew what he was doing.
The very fact that Trump does not is now turning into one of his White House’s lines of defense. As the New York Times reported Tuesday (May 17):
In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president for divulging classified intelligence to the Russians: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of his briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.
Mr. McMaster [H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor] all but said that publicly from the briefing room lectern.
“The president wasn’t even aware where this information came from,” Mr. McMaster said. “He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”
So, no: Despite the surface similarities, the predecessor Trump emulates most clearly these days is not his fellow Republican, Nixon. It’s the man Nixon followed into the Oval Office—Lyndon B. Johnson.
Trump’s own penchant for self-aggrandizement provides a starting point.
In 1997, during one of his routine appearances on the Howard Stern radio show, he bragged that he had avoided sexually transmitted diseases during his single years after his second divorce. “It’s amazing, I can’t even believe it. I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world, it is a dangerous world out there,” Trump said. “It’s like Vietnam, sort of. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave solider.”
And in 1993, Trump told Stern that American men—like him—who did not serve in the actual war in Vietnam had no reason to feel guilty. The AIDS epidemic that struck in the 1980s made dating a potentially fatal game: “Dating is like being in Vietnam. You’re the equivalent of a soldier going over to Vietnam.”
Using a war that killed 58,000 Americans and an estimated 10 times as many Vietnamese civilians as a metaphor for his sex life was disturbing enough when Trump was a regular civilian. Now that he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, it becomes all the more so.
Remembering that a blustering, boorish president was undone by the war’s actual conduct sharpens the parallels we can draw. The outlines sketched by Trump’s current condition are strikingly similar to those that traced Johnson’s downward spiral in his final years in the office he would effectively abandon.
The makings of the imperial presidency—an executive approach embraced by Trump—have their origins in the Depression-era administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it can be argued that the concept did not reach full flower until Johnson, a master politician elected in a historic landslide, seized all available levers of power as conspicuously as possible. This came about in ways large and small, as Time magazine recounted in 1968:
After reviewing a contingent of Viet Nam-bound Marines in California, Lyndon Johnson strode purposefully toward what he thought was his helicopter. “That’s your helicopter over there, sir,” said an officer, steering the President toward a different craft. “Son,” replied Johnson evenly, “they are all my helicopters.”
Like Trump, Johnson ignited populist passions and could be an overbearing, crude presence in private and public. The details may differ, but it might be said of each man that their humility did not fill the room. And how Johnson characteristically conducted himself will be eerily familiar to today’s news consumer.
His most incisive biographer, Robert Caro—who has published four of the planned five volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson—calls him “a competitive womanizer.” He was paranoid even when his power was at its height. He used his coarseness as a show of strength and a means of control. He angered animal lovers by picking up his beagles by their ears. A nation could not unsee Johnson lifting his shirt to expose his gallbladder-surgery scar. He conducted conversations with aides from the presidential commode.
As Vietnam ground down his presidency and came to overshadow all of the progressive gains he had set in motion with the social and anti-poverty programs underpinning his “Great Society” vision, Johnson became increasingly convinced that the news media were the enemy. He was certain that the communists controlled the three US TV networks.
He had come to office with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who had placed him on his 1960 Democratic ticket in a crassly pragmatic move to win LBJ’s Texas and as much of the South as possible. Kennedy’s widow confirmed that her husband saw the legendary dealmaker as unfit for the presidency. Trump took the 2016 election, perhaps fair and square. But given the thin margins that swung crucial states towards him and the fact that he lost the popular vote, the outcome has its own whiff of a somewhat-accidental administration.
Kennedy is credited with being the first presidential candidate to fully exploit television’s potential as a mass-communications device. He won a narrow victory over Nixon thanks to polished marketing and the youthful appeal he projected during the landmark presidential debates of 1960.
Yet it was Johnson who became a master of the medium in several ground-breaking ways, starting with a controversial 1964 campaign ad depicting a nuclear holocaust as the potential consequence of electing his opponent. As president, he strategically relied on the TV audience to absorb images of the abuse of black citizens in the American South as a way to galvanize the country—and thus a reluctant, Dixie-controlled Congress—to accept passage of his landmark civil-rights legislation. His appropriation of the messaging of the black church marked his most-acclaimed televised address to the nation, as he intoned “We shall overcome” before a joint session of Congress. (Johnson would also become the first president brought down by TV, as the unrelenting horror of the Vietnam War came to dominate broadcast news.)
There are additional similarities between LBJ and Trump, the first president to use reality TV as launching pad into office. Questions about whether Johnson’s private fortune was truly shielded by a trust were raised even before he became president. He used a personal residence, the LBJ Ranch, to entertain dignitaries foreign and domestic. During the 1964 campaign, Johnson was the wealthiest candidate among the four on the Democratic and Republican tickets, but the only one to not provide an estimate of his actual net worth (pdf).
Johnson all but resigned when he announced he would not run for a second elected term in March of 1968. His party had splintered over the war he persisted in pursuing as a Cold War imperative. The cost was tremendous for the US and nearly incalculable for Southeast Asia. His administration ended under siege at home and abroad. Now the paranoia and distrust that marked LBJ’s end days may have found a match in the Trump White House, battling a siege largely of its own making.
During Johnson’s term, it became increasingly clear that the credibility of US military spokesmen in Vietnam was suspect. They claimed victory was in sight even as the evidence grew that the war was unwinnable for the Americans. Reporters came up with a creative name for the daily briefings in Saigon: “The Five O’Clock Follies.”
Fifty years or so later, the show is playing again, this time at home in Washington. The near-daily parade of late afternoon or early evening news—James Comey fired! Trump gave the Russians intel secrets! Trump pressured Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn!—has created a new version of the Follies, in a spectacle increasingly worthy of the name.