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Madmen in the White House … this time it's a thing, not just a 'strategy'

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger

Richard Nixon wasn't actually out of control -- he just pretended to be to suit Henry Kissinger.

This isn't a joke. The "Madman Strategy" was an actual thing. You can look it up.

If you could make the Russians believe Nixon was more erratic than a shithouse rat, Kissinger theorized, maybe they'd back down long enough for the United States to exit Vietnam with its pride and dignity intact. Since Kissinger served at various times as both Nixon's National Security Advisor and his Secretary of State, he had some pull with the president.

Because both the Russians and the Americans were armed to the teeth with hair-trigger A-Bombs, H-Bombs, Z-Bombs and the like, the whole idea was basically textbook outhouse-rodent material, or so it seemed once we learned what had really been going on in the Nixon White House during the gaps when the First Tape Recorder wasn't running.

On the other hand, President Donald Trump -- who reminds a lot of people of Nixon nowadays -- appears to actually be out of control and presumably does his recording digitally. However, we can’t really be certain as Trump is also taking advice from Kissinger, who is now 93 and may even have a more fragile grasp of what most of us would call reality than he did 45 years ago. How do you like having the fate of the world in that guy's hands again?

The summer and fall of 1972 was the first time I had a real job on a real newspaper. You just couldn't get away from the Watergate Scandal that summer, even in a literally insular place like Victoria, B.C. Every couple of days the White House sprang a new leak, often to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, and the Nixon Administration settled lower in the water, metaphorically speaking. Journalism seemed like an honourable way to make a living.

If I learned anything from this applicable to the years I spent doing PR, it was that if you have bad news, you should publish it all at once and let the chips fall where they may. The damage is bound to be less severe than that of the incremental leakage that eventually sent President Nixon to the graveyard of history. I reckon if President Nixon had admitted everything right after the cops arrested G. Gordon Liddy and the other Watergate burglars in the wee hours of June 17, 1972, he would have served out his term.

With Trump now completely out of control in the White House -- sitting up late at night Tweeting, instead of sitting up late at night drinking, as a more sensible president like Nixon would have done -- the summer of 2017 sure has the same feeling to it.

Well, not exactly the same. For one thing, as noted above, Nixon may have been a crook, but it turns out he wasn't actually unstable, although perhaps Kissinger was.

Neither had the Republican Party yet completely taken leave of its senses and principles. In addition, Nixon had managed to get re-elected before the stuff really hit the fan, a feat unlikely to be duplicated by Trump.

There are other differences. Nixon may have opened the door to Communist China -- a deal that subsequently proved to be beneficial to both parties, Trump's views notwithstanding -- but I doubt he ever would have invited the Russian foreign minister and an SVR film crew into the White House to tell them stories. Plus, every time he did something truly awful abroad, President Nixon would appease his Quaker God by doing something pretty liberal at home. Indeed, there's a case to be made that as a result he was tied with Lyndon Johnson, who had his own foreign policy cross to bear, as America's most liberal president of the post-war era. He was a member of that reviled species many of us are starting to feel nostalgic for: the professional politician.

That said, like pretty well every other president since the end of the Second World War except Johnson, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush, Nixon got into office by pretending to be a Washington outsider, which he wasn't. Bush was the only one of the three exceptions who got into office in an actual election.

Nixon was also pretty smart, which doesn't seem to be a claim Trump can make, although the latter is sort of an outsider from the Washington establishment, if not from the American plutocracy.

What is the same is that Trump seems clearly to be cruising toward impeachment, just as Nixon appeared to be headed for the same destination after the events of June '72. We know how that movie ended, even if we don't yet know how the remake will end.

Like Nixon, who wasn't as bad as he's remembered, Trump isn't really bad enough yet to be declared Worst President Ever, or even to join the bottom five. It's said here that James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding and Andrew Jackson were all worse, and there's a case to be made Martin van Buren was too. George W. Bush, who seemed pretty terrible at the time but who is remembered nowadays with increasing fondness, doesn't even rate membership in that undistinguished company.

No, if Trump has ambitions to fall lower than that lot, he'll have to try a lot harder. The possibility he might recast himself as an American Caligula is something to fret about, I suppose. Indeed, some of us are so worried by the prospect that, like the Toronto Star's irreplaceable Heather Mallick, we may have come unhinged.

"Trump could die in office, be impeached, be replaced because of mental incapacity or in a military coup, or drop a nuclear bomb that causes retaliation that kills the rest of us too," Mallick wrote yesterday. "Which will it be and when?"

Her answer: "Trump will go. But will he take the planet with him? I say yes. Maybe yes."

Me? I’m more optimistic. I see impeachment and removal from office in Trump's future, not because of the Democrats, who may shrewdly want to keep him around until 2020 the better to wipe the Republicans from the face of the earth, but because Repugs like John McCain and former tarsands tourist Lindsay Graham recognize he poses an existential threat to their party.

Still, if you are one of those like Karl Marx who believes history tends to repeat itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, perhaps you should be concerned by this summer’s ongoing lunacy south of the Medicine Line. Remember, Watergate itself was pretty farcical, which raises the possibility that this time things have gotten out of sequence and we're in for tragedy.

For one thing, there’s that 93-year-old war criminal hanging around the Imperial Capital dispensing bad advice again. Plus, it's possible the baby man in the White House could sometime in the wee hours simply mistake the nuclear button for one that says "Tweet."

But unlike 1972 when we all thought the world might end the same way because Nixon was mining Haiphong Harbour, at least this time there’s someone around who might be able to talk the president out of it. I give you: Vladimir V. Putin!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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