Editorial: Smoking guns and a nation of enemies

Thursday, July 13, 2017

‘That election was not a traditional party contest between Republicans and Democrats. As presented to the people, it was an election of ideas – sharp-set, harshly contrasted – and of two personalities who spoke clearly of their directions. But underneath their claims it was a clash of cultures breaking away from the old common culture of comity and civil peace that had once bound Americans together.”

Those are the words of Theodore H. White, writing in The Making of the President 1972. “Watergate,” he continued, “was born of two new cultures which saw Americans as enemies of each other.”

For two years, from June 17, 1972, when five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, to Aug. 8, 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, the crime and its subsequent cover-ups cast a dark shadow over the American government. By resigning, Nixon said, “I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”

Forty-five summers later, millions of citizens in this divided nation, it seems, are hoping to hear the same words from a far different, albeit similarly embattled, president as soon as possible. Millions more greet the latest Russia revelations involving Donald Trump Jr. by shouting their long-past-maddening “But Hillary!” defense.

Time out, America.

To those who feel compelled to apply the “smoking gun” label to every new Russia development, consider the Watergate parallel: a June 23, 1972, recorded Oval Office conversation in which Nixon orders his staff to have the CIA tell the FBI to end its investigation of the break-in. Decades later, a Washington Post column would say of the “smoking gun”: “As famous as this tape is, its importance overall is mainly tied to the historical sequence of events in unraveling the conspiracy.” In fact, the tape wasn’t released until three days before Nixon’s resignation – which came after two years of often-tedious work by journalists, investigators and members of Congress.

At this point in the Russia investigation, it’s awfully difficult to tell the difference between immense stupidity and smoking guns, so caution is warranted.

As for the Trump supporters who have taken to calling every Russia revelation a “nothingburger,” it’s long past time to extract your heads from the sand.

When new evidence of Russian ties to the Trump administration is unearthed seemingly on a daily basis, that is not nothing. Just as with the Watergate investigation, the puzzle pieces must be painstakingly acquired and carefully locked in place before the full picture becomes clear. Only then will the American people know whether it is nothing. To hold up individual pieces and say “Nothing to see here” is one of two things: self-delusion or purposeful misdirection.

And that brings us back to Theodore White. He said in 1972 that the Watergate affair “was born of two new cultures which saw Americans as enemies of each other.” The same is true of the Russia affair today. One side seems to want upheaval above all else while the other is willing to turn a blind eye in hopes of avoiding it.

So take a deep breath, America, and look around. Your government is reeling. The world is watching and waiting – friends and foes alike – to see what will become of this wounded, divided nation.

If all you can see when you look around is enemies, you see nothing.