That Nixon/Clinton Thing

By: Gordon K. Durnil Author of: IS AMERICA BEYOND REFORM?, Sligo Press

As I was sweltering under the lights of a television news studio on August 17 waiting to comment on the president's "inappropriate behavior" speech, a top leader of the Democratic Party leaned over to ask what we Republicans did in 1974 to save at least the volunteers and potential candidates upon which the political process depends. The 1998 Democratic leader was looking to the future as we Republicans tried to do during the Nixon hearings, resignation, and pardon, in 1974.

The two party system had been the backbone of American freedom for more than 100 years, but the Nixon scandal hastened it's decline. I continued on as a campaign manager and state party chairman in the 1970s and 1980s, but found it much more difficult to recruit volunteers and candidates after Watergate. Strong leaders who had mentored me in politics, stepped aside. The quality of our office holders declined. Democratic debate was replaced by people of differing views yelling at each other instead of discussing potential solutions. Civility waned. Compromise became a bad word. Even so, volunteers are still an essential element of a free electoral process. And, if the two major parties cannot recruit decent candidates, more and more Americans will shy away from the voting booth. Remember, among the people who bothered to get registered to vote in the 1996 presidential election, fifty-one percent did not vote, raising the question: Can we sustain a democracy if the people do not participate?

The Democratic leader's question stirred memories of 1974. Republicans in my state were involved in challenging an incumbent Democrat U.S. Senator. We were getting close, but the polls indicated that the Nixon scandal might keep Republican voters away from the polls. The White House was doing then, what it is doing now - trying to conceive other events to cover up the scandal. Nixon went to China. Clinton's going to Russia. Both presidents high in the polls, but beginning to weaken. The Republican National Chairman, George Bush, called a meeting in Cincinnati proposing a plan to run television commercials in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, promoting the strengths of Richard Nixon as he toured the Great Wall of China. We Republican leaders raised hell. "No way," we said. "Nixon commercials will destroy any chance we have of winning our state races." We had all been long time supporters of Dick Nixon, but we realized that it was time to cut ourselves loose from him and localize our campaigns. I gave that advice to the Democrat leader. "Cut loose from Clinton, and stress the quality and importance of your local races. Educate your volunteers. Spend money on them. Honor them. Try to keep them involved." It might work now, but it didn't work then. To our surprise, Republicans in my state voted in force in 1974, but they pulled the Democrat lever.

Another participant in the television interview, a Democrat elected state office holder, chimed in with the thought that "we all hated Nixon in 1974. People don't hate Clinton now." I told him that the people I talk with do have a visceral dislike for Clinton - many think him the Antichrist. He expressed surprise, as I expressed surprise in 1974 at those who "hated" Nixon. I thought they had another agenda. The Democrat elected official thought that today's anti-Clinton folks have some other agenda.

It's not unusual for a big ego office holder to put dents in the system that got him elected. It is unusual for presidents to do what Nixon and Clinton have done - yank the life support system from the American two party system, a system worth saving. Without volunteers running our elections, without citizens secretly voting as they wish, without average folks moving in and out of public office, government and an elitist ruling class will do it all for us.

This article copyright © 1998 by Gordon K. Durnil, and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.