Frank Rich on the National Circus: Echoes of Watergate Summer in America’s Current Discontent

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1974, JANUARY 30TH, USA, WASHINGTON, DEMONSTRATION AGAINST NIXON Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: a poll showing that Americans blame Washington leaders for their lingering economic anxieties, what the new border-security bill means for Republicans, and what to do when political news gets you down.

A new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll shows an America so discontented with the state of the nation and its leaders that you can’t help but notice some echoes with the disconsolate Watergate summer of 1974, when Nixon resigned the presidency, 40 years ago this month. Are any of the similarities real?
This poll is bleak indeed. The percentage of American adults who doubt their children will have better lives than they do is at an all-time high (76). Nearly four fifths of those polled are discontented with the American political system. With the exception of the military and “high-tech industry,” every other institution, from the Supreme Court to public schools, has lost the confidence of a majority of the public. Obama’s approval rating is 40 percent; Congressional Republicans are at 19 percent; and Congress as a whole is at 14 percent. There is no good news for anyone in the entire survey with the possible exception of Apple.

Perhaps because Rick Perlstein’s new history of American dyspepsia from 1973 to 1976, The Invisible Bridge, is so freshly in my head, it’s hard not to notice similarities to the funk of that era: Vast economic uncertainty; the absence of leadership and governance in a polarized Washington; continued revelations of CIA crimes, from torture to illegal surveillance; the citizenry’s disillusionment with unpopular, failed wars. This week’s Afghanistan tragedy — the killing of the two-star Army general Harold J. Greene, the highest-ranking American casualty abroad since Vietnam — will only further sour an American public that wants us out of there yesterday. It was apparently not a Taliban attack but an inside job within the Afghan army that America has sacrificed so much to train. You begin to wonder if an escape-by-helicopter scenario like our ignominious departure from Saigon in 1975 is not in store.

Obama’s approval rating, depressed as it is, is not Nixonian, of course, and Obama is no Nixon, Sarah Palin’s calls for impeachment and John Boehner’s lawsuit notwithstanding. There will always be only one Nixon, the bigoted, paranoid, corrupt, and vindictive character who is now popping back out of the grave with the release of new books anthologizing still more of his often riveting White House recordings, which often sound like a cross between Goodfellas and Samuel Beckett. But if we have no Watergate in Washington this summer, there is at least a delightfully venal political scandal to follow across the Potomac: the corruption trial of the former Virginia governor, Robert McDonnell, and his wife Maureen, accused of taking cash and other trinkets in exchange for promoting the “diet supplements” of a low-rent businessman. This soap opera has everything, from an unidentified “male model” to Bible group meetings to telltale goods bearing brand names like Rolex and Oscar de la Renta. It may not be the stuff of Woodward and Bernstein, but the Washington Post’ongoing coverage of the McDonnells’ trial offers some of the summer’s most reliable comic relief.

On Friday, House Republicans passed a draconian $694 million border security bill that would speed deportations. (The bill is DOA in the Senate.) On Monday, two DREAMer activists confronted Iowa Republican Steve King for his hard-line opposition to immigration reform. Sitting next to King was Senator Rand Paul, who was captured on-camera darting away from the exchange. How long can Republicans literally run away from Hispanics? And will Paul's dash have any effect on his presidential ambitions? 
Republicans can keep running away from Hispanics for two more years — until the presidential election of 2016. They are given that breather because the crucial Senate races of 2014 are, with one exception (Colorado), taking place in states where the number of Hispanic voters is relatively low. After that, there will be a reckoning. It seems that a party that is ostensibly engaged on some kind of self-improvement campaign to learn how to speak to women, blacks, and gays without offending them remains, incredible as it seems, even more backward in speaking to Hispanics. In the Iowa incident, King insulted one of the DREAMer activists by telling her “You’re very good at English.” For his part, Rand Paul, in the words of one reporter, “left his half-eaten hamburger on his plate and was visibly chewing as he stood up” and fled. The video of this incident is reminiscent of the 2006 video of the former Virginia Governor (and presidential aspirant) George Allen insulting a Virginian man of Indian descent by calling him a “macaca” at a campaign event.

That incident essentially ended Allen’s political career. King is a known nut with no aspirations beyond whatever damage he can wreak in Congress. Paul, who at least kept his mouth shut, will not go the way of George Allen. But the Republican party’s march to demographic suicide is, if anything, becoming more determined with each passing month. To understand the political impact of the hard-line border security bill passed by House Republicans under the tutelage of Ted Cruz, one need only turn to The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page: “The GOP again gave the country the impression that its highest policy priority is to deport as many children as rapidly as possible back from wherever they came ... A party whose preoccupation is deporting children is going to alienate many conservatives, never mind minority voters.”

We’re now in the dog days of August. Any tips on how to escape the endless onslaught of depressing news in a summer defined by Putin, Gaza, and the do-nothing Congress?
Well, maybe a few personal recommendations. See Richard Linklater’s moving and indelible Boyhood. Watch Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, which consistently makes the horrific funny. And if by some chance you are in New York City, go to the Metropolitan Museum, where two wildly idiosyncratic shows are tucked in among the classics of the permanent collection. In one of them (ending this weekend), you can dive into the obsessiveness of the Anglo-American fashion designer Charles James (1906–1978). You don’t have to know anything about fashion — and I certainly don’t — to appreciate the personal drama of an artist who poured all his creativity into designing and building gowns that were architectural feats. At least as interesting as his designs is the part of the exhibit showcasing his back office documents and scrapbooks, all charting a man who sacrificed his financial and perhaps mental health out of devotion to an evanescent art form. No less involving is the neighboring retrospective of the American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928–1984), another obsessive, some of whose photos of America capture a national angst, from the Mad Men era into the Watergate '70s, that is perhaps even more disturbing than anything we are experiencing in our discontented summer of 2014.