Alexander’s warning

The president’s defenders have said Alexander sinned by using the names of the two presidents in the same sentence; that he, like so many Republicans, “can dish it out, but can’t take it”; or that comparing a president who calls out and confronts his critics with one who used the power of government to go after them is baseless and unfair.

Many of the current president’s friends will forgive him anything, and more than a few of his enemies see him as the incarnation of everything they despise, but dismissing Alexander’s concerns out of hand would be a serious mistake. The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato dismisses Alexander’s comparison of Obama with Nixon as “exaggeration” and argues that we shouldn’t be overly concerned, because every president gets mad at his opponents, but few actually use their power to punish them.

But they compare Obama in his first year with Nixon in his last. The Nixon administration didn’t enter office dedicated to compiling “enemies lists” or salivating at the opportunity to sic the IRS on the president’s critics; over time the president and his team found themselves on a slippery slope born of frustration and a bunker mentality within the White House. Bitterness and a conviction that they were right led Nixon’s team to believe that the ends justified the means.

Others have done the same. Woodrow Wilson had newspaper editors critical of his policies thrown in jail and Lyndon Johnson’s use of the IRS on his enemies was so ham-handed as to make Nixon look gentle. These men may not have gone as far as Nixon, but abused their power to further their ends or to pounce on their enemies. Human beings entrusted with extraordinary power and encircled by sycophants who assure them they are right are wont to believe over time that all who oppose them are evil, and their efforts to curtail evil leads to more aggressive uses of power.

Alexander was a young aide in the Nixon White House and saw things going bad. I witnessed it from the inside myself. It didn’t happen in a day or week or even a year. The paranoia and the feeling that those “out to get the president” needed to be taken down developed over time and came to characterize the Nixon White House. Warnings like those from Alexander last week were ignored as things grew worse.

Most politicians don’t need a formal “enemies list.” They know who they hate. Franklin Roosevelt hated Col. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, Richard Nixon hated The New York Times and President Barack Obama has little use for Fox News, talk radio or the insurance industry or the Chamber of Commerce. Whether any of them were right is irrelevant, but when they are tempted to use the power of government to go after their enemies — that is very relevant.

Obama’s defenders now classify Alexander, previously viewed as a sensible moderate, as an enemy. They say that the president has every right to criticize his critics, and that is certainly true as long as he doesn’t misuse the power of his office to punish them in the way we might have expected from someone like Nixon.

Thus, disagreeing with Rush Limbaugh is acceptable enough, but conspiring with Congress to shut down talk radio is out of bounds. Most troubling may be the administration’s decision to change laws to cripple the insurance industry because it dared to question the wisdom of comprehensive healthcare reform. Alexander’s heard those Nixonian strains before.

“When you threaten an industry that you’re going to change the law in a way that will be detrimental to it, as Democrats have said to the insurance industry — who were once their allies on healthcare reform, and then they changed their minds. Or when you say, in effect, to major parts of the economy, ‘Either support us or we’ll tax you,’ that’s pretty heavy-handed,” Alexander said.

Don’t go down that road, Alexander was saying. Too many of us have seen what lies at its end.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.