Jackie Calmes commentary: During Watergate, Republicans made 'the system' work. Today's GOP is failing

Summary: That sums up the Republican litmus test these days, and it's a lie. State and federal politicians stoke the lie or at least tolerate it. Until they stop, "the system" cannot work as it once so proudly did. And our national nightmare not only persists, it threatens to get worse.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Marine One as they depart the White House on Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Marine One as they depart the White House on Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
(Eric Thayer/Getty Images/TNS)
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June 17 is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate burglary that would end Richard M. Nixon's presidency two years later. By then, his vice president and successor, Gerald R. Ford Jr., would tell Americans, "Our long national nightmare is over."

Little could Ford or his audience have imagined the nation's current nightmare, one that's far from over. We're enduring the biggest presidential scandal since Watergate, or ever: Donald Trump's continued assault on democracy, following his unprecedented refusal to accept the 2020 election result and allow for the peaceful transfer of power to the winner.

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When it comes to presidential disgrace, Don the Con tops even Tricky Dick . Trump, however, has had much more help achieving his ignominy.

When Nixon resigned and helicoptered away from the White House, the often uttered consensus was that "the system worked." All three branches of government had done their part: Congress, the courts and even the executive branch once Nixon's henchmen were out of the way and prison-bound. Finally Nixon himself — a believer in constitutional governance, despite his many flaws, and a patriot compared to the traitorous Trump — accepted that the jig was up.

In Trump's case, the system hasn't worked. So far. He walks free as the Justice Department dallies, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from his marks, er, supporters ("The 'Big Lie' was also a big ripoff," as Calif. Rep. Zoe Lofgren said), and says he plans to run for president again. It's far from clear whether the system will — or can — bring him to justice before that happens.


Yet we've gained some hard-won knowledge: It's not "the system" that must work to preserve our 246-year-old nation. It's the people whom we entrust to operate the machinery of government who must act.

And those people, chiefly the Republicans among them, continue to fail us. Led in Congress by Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, they've enabled Trump's worst abuses for years by their acquiescence and by their opposition to his impeachment, first for extorting from a foreign country for political dirt and then for inciting an insurrection to remain in power.

In February 2021, the Senate voted 57 to 43 to convict Trump for incitement, but the majority — all 50 Democrats and seven principled Republicans — was 10 votes shy of the two-thirds margin needed under the Constitution. Had McConnell and just nine additional Republicans voted to convict, they wouldn't have to worry that Trump might well be their party's 2024 nominee. They could have barred him , post-conviction, from running for federal office.

Nixon, too, had his Republican enablers initially, including Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. That helps explain why it was more than two years from the election-year burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building to Nixon's resignation under threat of impeachment and Senate conviction.

Yet back then, the truth had a common meaning to both parties. Baker and many other Republicans in Congress not only were swayed by the evidence that mounted against Nixon, they also helped force that evidence into the light during the House impeachment hearing and, especially, the Senate's special Watergate committee hearings.

"What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Baker, the Senate panel's vice chair, famously asked .

Other Republican leaders, including conservative icon Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, went to the White House and persuaded Nixon to resign rather than be forced from office by Congress.

That reflects another difference between then and now: Most Republicans of that era put country above party and rewarded those politicians who acted accordingly.


Following Baker's starring role against Nixon, he would become the Senate majority leader and then Ronald Reagan's White House chief of staff. Contrast his fortunes with the party's treatment of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, also the vice chair of a committee investigating a Republican presidential scandal.

Just for condemning the condemnable Trump, Cheney was ousted from the House Republican leadership team (with McCarthy's support), excommunicated by the Wyoming Republican Party (its chair belongs to the Oath Keepers militia group ), censured by the Republican National Committee and likely faces defeat for reelection to a Trump-endorsed rival.

Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the only other Republican to similarly stand up to Trump and to serve on the House committee investigating the attempted coup, has been treated likewise. He chose not to seek reelection.

The Republican Party is Trump's party: radicalized, tribal, cultish. Most congressional Republicans wouldn't even vote to create a committee to investigate the attack on the legislative branch by the head of the executive branch, an attack that threatened their lives. Those who did are being punished by Trumpian voters in party primaries.

Yes, Republican voters are as much to blame as the party's politicians for failures of "the system." In recent primaries , including in four states Tuesday, the voters have chosen scores of state and federal candidates who ascribe to Trump's Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Driving in rural Ohio on Sunday after a visit with family there, I passed a sign on a farm fence: "Biden didn't defeat Trump. Election fraud did."

That sums up the Republican litmus test these days, and it's a lie. State and federal politicians stoke the lie or at least tolerate it. Until they stop, "the system" cannot work as it once so proudly did. And our national nightmare not only persists, it threatens to get worse.

Jackie Calmes is an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C.


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