Forty years ago, Richard Milhous Nixon became the first and only president to announce his resignation from office. Thank God he did, because Nixon was a gill-breathing bottom-dweller, a paranoiac with a reverse-Midas touch, turning everything he contacted into turd. But his disgraceful quitting also screwed us.
Even as presidential hopefuls go, Nixon was an amoral hack. And he was a presidential hopeful for far longer—decades longer—than he was a president. The reason Nixon left the office he'd struggled so hard to achieve was that he was about to get impeached over the coverup of the Watergate break-in, and he didn't want to be impeached. To avoid removal from office, he would have needed 34 senators not to vote for impeachment. By one academic estimate, he couldn't have mustered more than 11.
He never seemed to have any allies whose alliances were based on more than convenience. And with good reason. Here are some things that Nixon wrought on Americans in his short time in the Oval Office:
On the plus side, the way Nixon went down has thrown the United States into an existential angst from which we will never recover. Since August 8, 1974, our nation has been post-governmental. And this ought to be a good thing.
There will never be another legitimate, unfettered president—an observation that's only grown more obvious since the Clinton impeachment fiasco, Bush v. Gore, and Obama birtherism, and that will blossom further with whatever the hell insano theories are likely to dog successive presidents.
In resigning, Nixon also swung a cudgel against Americans' unfounded faith in the legislative branch. He acknowledged no wrongdoing in his farewell speech, instead blaming partisan politics and congressional vote-whipping for his inability to continue as president. "What was intended to be an unprecedented humiliation for any American president, Nixon converted into a virtual parliamentary acknowledgement of almost blameless insufficiency of legislative support to continue," wrote Conrad Black, a Nixon biographer and convicted felon who, like his subject, is a notoriously amoral platitude generator.
In so doing, Nixon set the tone for future post-governmental America: Feckless presidents could always blame their fecklessness on a feckless Congress. The United States electorate would forever after be bereft of fecks.
Such existential angst could, and should, be a positive development. There's something refreshingly honest about recognizing that American greatness is made by men and women, not ordained by God and Nature. Yes, it is unmakeable. It is always being unmade. But as long as we are sober about our humanity and our fallibility, we can work together in making a livable nation that lasts awhile. "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely," the sedate Edmund Burke wrote. Rather than placing blind faith in institutions and politicians and their rapacious urges because America, we could acknowledge that America is something we build every day, something that can easily suck, or go extinct, if we call in sick—a privilege and a responsibility.
And yet, rather than embrace this existential state, most Americans' response—driven by the political machines and centuries of ossified culture and a sheer inability to manage anything beyond the increasing complexities of the workaday—has been to pretend it doesn't exist, to pretend that the system worked in the wake of Nixon's resignation, and that we are still the exceptional nation.
Tricky Dick's departure did not erode the American imperium one bit. We high-stepped through eight years of a senile hawk who owed his fortunes to a trained chimpanzee. We limped through eight years of Clintonesque not-wars and not-truths. We had Bush wars and Obama wars and we are likely to have more Clinton or Bush wars after Obama.
Nevertheless, improvement is possible. The information is available. After Nixon, some of us know better than to pretend that this is democracy, that the Will of the People is immanent and immutable in American electoral culture, that our federal leadership is any less a kitschy performance than a hologram of pint-sized Shirley Temple drinking a Coke on the back of a rearing Barnum & Bailey elephant, belting out God Bless America on a baseball field named after a beer in a stadium named after a bank while the Thunderbirds scream red white and blue contrails overhead and airdrop a division of Mark McGwire bobble-heads on us as we draw sparklers from beneath our wide-cushioned stadium seats and turn to the Diamondvision screen for a special message about freedom and our overseas troops from Chevy starring Rascal Flatts.
Are Americans any freer, or happier, than other citizens of the world? Freer and happier than most, perhaps, but that is a low bar to clear. Yet thanks to l'affaire Nixon, we have a deeper freedom than we had before: the freedom to choose between entertainment and functional government. All we need to do now is stop deferring the latter in pursuit of the former.