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Is Obama guilty in comparisons to Nixon?

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Fox News’s Howard Kurtz writes that the recent charges the right has made about the actions of President Barack H. Obama being “increasingly similar” to the actions of President Richard M. Nixon have “a high bar to clear” if they hope to be taken seriously. Kurtz’s March 14, 2014 column for Fox News states that National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson’s March 13, 2014 column did not successfully clear this high bar, because Hanson did not prove that Obama “ordered,” “encouraged,” “condoned” or “even knew about” the actions that could be called similar to those actions Nixon ordered.

Nixon’s most famous scandal, and that which forced him to resign in the face of a probable impeachment, is Watergate. Watergate is largely considered the greatest scandal of the last century, and it is taken so seriously by Kurtz that he feels that any comparisons to the massive criminality and mendacity of that scandal should be taken just as seriously.

Watergate stands for more than what the Nixon White House dismissed as a third-rate burglary at Democratic headquarters;” Kurtz writes, “It encompasses other break-ins, wiretaps, tax audits, hush money, cover-ups and perjury that sent many administration officials to jail and drove a president from office. So for some on the right to accuse the current president of Nixonian behavior is a heavy charge indeed.”

To prove that the right have not cleared this high bar, with this heavy charge, Kurtz quotes the Hanson column’s list of activities Nixon either attempted, or ordered, while in office:

Nixon tried to use the Internal Revenue Service to go after his political enemies — although his IRS chiefs at least refused his orders to focus on liberals…

“Nixon ignored settled law and picked and chose which statutes he would enforce — from denying funds for the Clean Water Act to ignoring congressional subpoenas.

“Nixon attacked TV networks and got into personal arguments with journalists such as CBS’s Dan Rather…

“Nixon wanted the Federal Communications Commission to hold up the licensing of some television stations on the basis of their political views…

“Nixon went after ‘enemies.’ He ordered surveillance to hound his suspected political opponents and was paranoid about leaks.”

Kurtz then bridges Hanson’s list of Nixon’s activities to Hanson’s list of similar activities that have occurred in the Obama administration, by writing, “Pretty bad stuff, right?”

The IRS?” Hanson’s column continues. “So far, the Obama-era IRS has succeeded in hounding nonprofit tea-party groups into political irrelevancy…

“The FCC? According to FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, Obama’s agency, until outrage arose, had planned ‘to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their “news philosophy” and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information.’…

“Enemies? Federal authorities jailed a video maker for a minor probation violation after the Obama administration falsely blamed him for causing a riot that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi in September 2012…

“Going after reporters? Obama regularly blames Fox News by name for its criticism…

“Ignoring the law? The Affordable Care Act as currently administered bears little resemblance to the law that was passed by Congress and signed by the president. Federal immigration law is now a matter of enforcing what the president allows and ignoring the rest.

“Wiretaps? Well, aside from the electronic surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, the Obama Justice Department secretly monitored Fox News reporter and sometime critic James Rosen.”{1}

Kurtz then provides an opinion on Hanson’s purported correlations:

The problem with most of these examples is there’s no evidence that Obama ordered, or knew about, these efforts. And that’s very different from Nixon, who as we know from the secret tapes, would talk about breaking into the Brookings Institution.

“One prominent exception would be the surveillance of journalists such as those at the Associated Press and Fox’s James Rosen. Obama may not have personally known in advance, but his attorney general, Eric Holder, did.”

The problem this reader has with this “prominent exception” is that if Kurtz is going to single this one activity out, because one Obama administration official did know in advance, while Obama may not have, Kurtz should be required to extend the same courtesy to all of the activities Hanson listed. If Kurtz is saying that this prominent exception is made prominent by the fact that an administration official knew about the surveillance of journalists in advance, while Obama may not have, how can the same assertion not be made regarding the activity that occurred in the IRS’s crackdown on conservative groups?

In the case of the IRS crackdown, on conservative groups, it could just as easily be said that Obama may not have known, but acting commissioner Douglas H. Shulman, or Director of the IRS Exempt Organizations division Lois Lerner, did. If Kurtz’s assertion is that Obama personally appointed Holder to be attorney general, and is thus more accountable for Holder’s actions, it should be noted that Obama appointed Lerner too. If Kurtz’s charge is that as acting attorney general, Holder is closer to Obama, it should be noted that Obama met with then-acting IRS director Shulman over 150 times, and one has to assume that if Shulman and Obama weren’t close in any manner before these meetings, they probably became closer aligned throughout the course of them.

Kurtz concedes the following:

Perhaps one day evidence will emerge that the president or his top aides encouraged the IRS Cincinnati field office to crack down on conservative groups, but so far there’s no proof.”

Even with this concession, Kurtz is still redirecting the focus of Hanson’s column to a call for proof of what Obama “ordered,” “encouraged,” or “even knew about”. Hanson’s piece carefully avoided any claims regarding, as of yet, unprovable charges that Obama ever personally “ordered, encouraged, or even knew about” any of the actions he listed. Hanson’s piece is littered with qualifiers to keep the reader’s focus on the general similarities between the two presidents by writing, “Now, consider how President Obama has directed government... ,” “The Obama-era IRS,” “Obama FCC appointees,” “Obama administration,” “the Obama Justice Department,” and where necessary, Hanson specifically names the Obama appointees, or administration officials, that acted in the manner Hanson found similar to the manner in which Nixon appointees, or administration officials, acted. Hanson is careful, in other words, to avoid specific, and unprovable, similarities of actions ordered by Obama, and those that can be proved ordered by Nixon. The title of Hanson’s piece is: “Following the Trail Nixon Blazed.” Even though Hanson’s title states that the purpose of his column is to view the progression towards Nixon’s path, Kurtz chooses to stubbornly view Hanson’s column through the lens of a column focused on the actions Obama “ordered, encouraged, or even knew about” versus those of Nixon, to display the fact that Hanson does not clear the high bar.

Kurtz also focuses his refutation in a manner one could say that a defense lawyer might in an indictment of his client’s actions. He focuses on the provable individual actions of these two presidents in a manner one would before an impeachment hearing. Hanson, on the other hand, keeps his argument more theoretical, and focused on the “increasingly similar” actions of these two administrations. If the argument Hanson were making was more directed toward a call for impeachment, the preponderance of evidence regarding the two individual presidents would be greater for Hanson, but his thesis remains limited to a castigation of the Obama administration for following the trail Nixon blazed, through specific, comparative analysis.

Criticize Obama all you want,” Kurtz concludes, “Davis has a point that civil libertarians who railed against Republican presidents have given Obama a pass (on such issues as NSA surveillance, I would add). But Nixonian conduct is an awfully high bar to clear unless you can show that a president personally condoned law breaking.”{2}

The primary refutation that Kurtz directs towards Victor Davis Hanson’s charges is not that Hanson’s assertions are wholly incorrect, but that they cannot be used in a trial to clear the high bars of treason, bribery, and other high crimes or misdemeanors necessary to convict in an impeachment trial in the manner Nixon’s actions likely would have. He also writes that the argument that President Barack Obama has an increasingly number of similarities previously blazed by President Richard Nixon cannot be made, based on the evidence we have right now, because Obama probably didn’t “order,” “encourage,” “personally condone,” or “even knew about” the type of actions that we know Nixon did. Is Obama following the trail ignobly blazed by Nixon? Can one draw up a laundry list of increasingly similar activities that have occurred during the tenure of these two presidents? No, because there is no smoking gun conclusion that would state that their activities are similar beyond a reasonable doubt. Kurtz's defense would prove to be very effective if Hanson were purporting that Obama should stand trial for his offenses in a criminal court, but Hanson's assemblage of evidence appears to be a motion directed to the plaintiff's (the U.S. citizen's) injury in a civil court, composed of his readers, for the purpose of discovery. Kurtz appears to have missed this in his search for the smoking gun.

{1}http://www.nationalreview.com/article/373218/following-trail-nixon-blazed-victor-davis-hanson
{2}http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/03/14/watergate-revisited-hard-look-at-obama-nixon-comparison/

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