The abuse of presidential power for personal gain or revenge is nothing new, but its use has always been kept from public scrutiny because it was rightly considered, both by the perpetrator and the public, as dishonorable, slimy, underhanded and wrong.
Lyndon Johnson was a master at using it without getting caught and Richard Nixon used it but did get caught.
When Sen. Wayne Morse, an Independent senator from Oregon publicly opposed Johnson’s Vietnam war policy, Johnson instructed the FBI to look into possible “dirt” that could be used against Morse.
Morse was a public figure, but the 97 American citizens who were not public figures – and wrote Morse supporting his stance – were surreptitiously investigated at the request of the president. The FBI reported finding embarrassing facts on 17 of them.
When it came to enemies, Nixon seemingly had no equal. And maybe he deserved them. Pre-eminent among them was Daniel Ellsberg, the man who made the “Pentagon Papers” public. The papers comprised a 17 volume history of the war in Vietnam, and had been commissioned by Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under Lyndon Johnson.
They pointed out that even though the Pentagon knew the war could not be won, it was decided to continue it for political reasons. Nixon wanted Ellsberg destroyed. He instructed J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, to break into the Brookings Institute where it was believed the papers were housed and blow the safe to get the evidence.
Hoover wouldn’t do it because he knew they would get caught, according to Tim Weaver in his book, “Enemies: A History of the FBI.” Because of Hoover’s refusal, Nixon created his “plumbers” spy team, and they did get caught, but on a different mission.
Nixon also had a bona fide list of enemies drawn up by a member of his staff. It is worth quoting the introduction to the list in its entirety:
“This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our administration. Stated a bit more bluntly — how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
On this list of 20 enemies were Democratic Party donors and supporters, labor leaders, prominent people in the news media, two black democratic politicians, one of whom the memo described as having “a known fondness for white females,” and screen actor Paul Newman.
The memo suggested finding out what dealings these people had with the federal government such as federal grants, contracts and … prosecution,” and again, “how we can best screw them.” It suggests insisting on the full support of the appropriate federal agency heads as to how the “enemies” should then be “screwed,” causing the agency heads, should they cooperate, to break the law.
All these actions were retribution for opposing — not the government of the United States — but the president, duly elected by the people and entrusted with the duty of running the country. Well, politics is rough and tumble, one might say, and we have to expect this kind of activity. Maybe so, but we would also expect that our elected officials and their administrators not break the law in order to carry out their intentions.
Think of it this way; we have a mutual obligation to each other to do what is best for America. We have a legal — not to mention moral — responsibility to conduct our actions within the law. That goes for the little guy, the medium-sized guy and the big guy.
Equal justice under the law.
But there’s a catch, and that catch is that it is easier for the powerful to exploit the people than it is for the people to exploit the powerful. If the powerful can get away with illegal acts to further their ambitions, why can’t everybody else? So, there is not only the responsibility to the law, there is a responsibility to act in a manner that respects the way that everybody else has to act.
Or, in far fewer words, a responsibility to set a good example.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.