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The drama-comedy synthesis of impeachments past

If Nixon and Clinton bear out the truth that history repeats its tragedies with farces, what will Trump's impeachment yield?

It was the summer after high school graduation, the summer before starting college, and I went off to Littleton, New Hampshire for a program called Torah Corps.

I was one of about 25 American and Canadian teenagers who had come there for a summer of intensive study in Judaism. Like most teenagers, I had not been paying all that much attention to current events, not keeping up with the news, just vaguely aware of what was going on. And so, we were taken by surprise when we gathered in the TV room on the camp grounds where we were staying, on the evening of August 8, 1974, to listen to a speech being given by the president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon.

Less than three minutes into the speech, we heard Nixon utter these fateful words:

I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time president and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad.

To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the president and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.

Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as president at that hour in this office.”

As Nixon paused in his delivery, we sat in stunned silence. It was just a moment, but it seemed like an eternity as the shock set in. And then, all of a sudden, the quiet was interrupted by one of the Canadian kids, who started to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The other Canadians laughed and, in retrospect, it was a funny way to break the tension. But it didn’t seem at all humorous at the time. For us, it was not a laughing matter.

Don’t get me wrong, though. There wasn’t a Nixon supporter in the room. None of us were happy that the politician known colloquially as Tricky Dick had won re-election in a landslide less than two years earlier. We didn’t mourn for the man who, a year after being reelected, as revelations concerning the Watergate conspiracy and cover up were coming to light, felt compelled to declare, “I am not a crook!”

No, what we lamented was our own loss of innocence. In becoming the first president to resign from office, Nixon punctured one of the myths that we had grown up believing in, about the special nature of our nation, the sense that the president of the United States was somehow of high moral standing, pure, forthright, honest, and fair. It was a childish view of the government, to be sure. And democracy demands that we do not put our leaders on a pedestal, that we recognize them as our equals and as fallible human beings, and that we remain vigilant against any wrongdoing or overreach on their part.

But Nixon’s resignation did result in a loss of innocence, one that we never quite recovered from. Only a few years later, another American myth would be overthrown, that we had never lost a war. After our precipitous withdrawal from Vietnam, that often-repeated oversimplification was no longer heard in our public discourse.

Nixon was a tragic figure in the classic sense, as a person of great achievement who was brought down by his own hubris. And his resignation, in response to Congress drawing up articles of impeachment, was a collective tragedy for our country.

The idea of tragedy brings to mind the famous quote, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” The author of the quote is Karl Marx, and the actual citation, from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, is:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The tragedy of Nixon’s near-impeachment and resignation was followed by the impeachment of Bill Clinton on December 19, 1998, and his acquittal on February 12, 1999. This most certainly qualifies as a farce insofar as it was framed as Clinton lying about consensual sexual relations of a sort with an adult White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

I don’t mean to deny how utterly inappropriate this was, or the seriousness of Clinton’s lying under oath, nor to minimize the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit that was dismissed, appealed, and settled out of court. But Independent Counsel Ken Starr, who was investigating the Clintons’ involvement in the Whitewater Development Corporation involving real estate investments, found no evidence of wrongdoing, but did accuse President Clinton of perjury in grand jury testimony. Perjury to conceal adultery, or as it was frequently put, lying about sex.

In contrast to the criminal activity of Nixon’s Committee for the Re-Election of the President, referred to by many by the acronym CREEP, and the cover-up of the illegal actions taken to undermine the Democratic candidacy of George McGovern, Clinton’s personal failings were far from tragic. The opposite of tragedy, of course, is comedy. In tragic narratives, heroes are in conflict with their environment, and bring about their own doom. In comic narratives, heroes just try to get by in environments that can be difficult if not hostile, and manage to survive.

And if you’re thinking what about Andrew Johnson, let me point out that anyone born the year he was impeached, 1868, would have been 106 years old when Nixon resigned. Of course, Nixon never was formerly impeached, and Johnson was, so go ahead and substitute Johnson for Nixon if you like. But I’m going to stick with the events that occurred in my lifetime, and with history’s recognizable repetition over the past half century, as farce followed tragedy.

And all this leads up to the question, what comes third? Do we oscillate back to tragedy? I don’t think so — the current candidate for impeachment is something of a clown, an accidental president in many ways, lacking the true greatness in ability and achievement of Nixon, an individual brought down by fatal flaws that were equally great. There is nothing tragic about incompetence, or simple venality.

Our president may be a clown, but not one who’s very funny. He has been a survivor, it’s true, but he’s also constantly at odds with his environment. His narcissism guarantees that he does not simply try to get by as best he can. He is the embodiment of resentment, dissatisfaction, and bitterness. He smirks, he mocks, he is sarcastic and insulting, but he never really smiles, or shows any real happiness. He is all envy and desire. As a person and as a president, he represents neither comedy nor farce, but rather catastrophe.

The ancient Greeks first identified the twin dramatic forms of comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare mastered both of them. And they are not unknown in Jewish tradition either, but our emphases lie elsewhere. Above all, with justice. And the wheels are indeed turning.

If, like Marx, we follow Hegel’s lead, then the dialectic of tragedy and farce represents a thesis and its antithesis, and what comes next is their synthesis. The fusion of tragedy and farce. What might that be? Maybe it’s melodrama, a simple narrative where the good guys win in the end, defeating evil. Maybe it’s a never-ending story of the soap opera variety, with its complex relationships, ups and downs, and no final resolutions. Or maybe it’s only history, just one damned thing after another, as Arnold Toynbee put it.

Nixon resigned to avoid being impeached. Clinton was impeached but not removed from office. First, tragedy. Second, farce. So maybe, maybe, maybe… third time’s the charm?

About the Author
Lance Strate is a past president of Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia, New Jersey and Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City. He is the author of Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition; Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited; On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology; Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study; and Thunder at Darwin Station.
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