Nixon begins the speech saying “This is the 37th time I’ve spoken to you from this office,” an opening move designed to suggest a kind of “transparency” that contrasted sharply with the whole idea of a “cover-up” which had led to the offenses listed in the articles of impeachment that had already been recommended by the House Judiciary Committee (obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress).
There is conflicting information out there regarding just how many times Nixon delivered televised speeches from the Oval Office -- some places agree with him and say 37 times, others list fewer. Most agree, though, of all the presidents of the television age, Nixon used the medium as much or more than anyone else, with Ronald Reagan the only one to challenge him for such a title.
Nixon considered such speeches a way for him to communicate directly with American citizens without having his words or ideas filtered through the interpretive lens of those reporting on him. Doing so enabled him to have more control over the response, or so he believed, and not have to rely on a press with whom he was on increasingly antagonistic terms as his career went along -- not to mention his steadfast belief in a bias against him shared by most media.
A few of these speeches represented examples of Nixon’s greatest political triumphs, going back to the “Checkers” speech of September 1952 on up through the famous “Silent Majority” address on Vietnam in early November 1969. They also now retrospectively appear as some of his most ignominious moments, such as the three Watergate speeches (given in April 1973, August 1973, and April 1974), each of which present evidence of Nixon delivering what were later conclusively shown to be blatant lies and intentionally deceptive statements.
In any case, Nixon always valued the idea of having what felt like a “direct” line of address to the American public. Writing about the “Checkers” speech and the role of television in politics in general in his 1990 book In the Arena, Nixon told of reporters then having “naturally found it very difficult to accept that by going over their heads to the country on TV, I had proved them wrong.”
That’s how Nixon viewed such televised addresses -- a way of reducing the power of the press by “going over their heads” and getting his message to the people without any interference.
Yesterday I couldn’t help but think of this notion of a president speaking “directly” to the people when reading president-elect Donald Trump’s barrage of tweets strangely calling into question the legitimacy of the election he won nearly three weeks ago.
You’ve no doubt seen or heard about the tweets. The most wild-eyed and crazed of them refers to how Trump believes he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” (Trump won the Electoral College, but Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over 2.2 million, according to the most updated counts.) In another he specifies Virginia, New Hampshire, and California (three states won by Clinton) as sites of “serious voter fraud.”
“Why isn’t the media reporting on this?” asks Trump in the latter tweet. “Serious bias - big problem!”
Trump provides no evidence to support such claims, nor does he refer to any sources that do. From the reporting of others it sounds as though Trump is repeating some unsubstantiated claims made shortly after the election by a conservative activist named Gregg Phillips (also delivered via Twitter) that were subsequently promoted on the conspiracy site InfoWars.
InfoWars is a site identified with conspiracy theorist and talk show host Alex Jones and has provided a means for him to advance various fictions about historical events -- e.g., that the Oklahoma City attack, 9/11, and the Boston Marathon bombing were all “false flag” operations conducted by the government to increase its power; that the Sandy Hook school shootings didn’t even happen, nor did the moon landing in 1969; that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States (an idea Trump promoted and used as a gateway for his entry national politics); that global warming is a fiction invented by the Chinese and Muslims in New Jersey publicly celebrated on 9/11 (ideas Trump has also repeated); and so on. Jones even argued Mitt Romney really won the 2012 presidential election.
Like Nixon, Trump’s antagonism toward media and its “serious bias” inspires his “going over their heads” to communicate directly with the public, although Trump appears to favor Twitter over television as a preferred medium. In his 60 Minutes interview the Sunday after the election, Trump described Twitter as “a method of fighting back” against “bad” or “inaccurate” reporting on him. (He also said he would be “restrained” -- or, rather, “do very restrained” -- when using it going forward.)
But what Trump is presenting as his own, “unfiltered” message about what he thinks to be true is itself a kind of reporting being presented by sources that aren’t just biased in favor of a particular ideology, but seemingly unbound by reality, free to manufacture “info” out of whole cloth.
Nixon lied and covered up and did all sorts of things an elected official -- never mind a president -- should never do. He often claimed he rarely bluffed as a poker player, but he bluffed a lot as a politician, including repeatedly at the very end when he was called down and went busto.
But as paranoid and delusional as Nixon could be, he at least operated within a largely recognizable, shared actuality with others. These aren’t even “bluffs” Trump is tweeting out -- they don’t even meet the minimum standard of credibility to be characterized as such.
I suppose some believe there’s a method to the madness, though that would be even scarier than what is more likely the case. It’s an instinctive response to Trump, I think, wanting to impose some kind of order on what seems utterly chaotic (and frightening, given the stakes in play).
Tim Murphy tweeted an interesting comment yesterday. He’s a writer for Mother Jones, I’ll hasten to add, so as not to sound like some who simply tweet “I hear” and leave it at that.
“People act like Trump’s playing like eight-dimensional wizard chess with his tweets,” began Murphy. In other words, for those who don’t understand the president-elect’s intentions, he is communicating “over their heads,” perhaps only to those who for whatever reason can follow what he’s doing.
“But the much more obvious explanation,” added Murphy, “is he’s unstable.”