A Cancer, and the Presidency
by Joel Bellman
On the morning of March 21, 1973, White House Counsel John Dean famously issued a blunt warning to Richard Nixon that the Watergate coverup posed a mortal danger to his presidency. As Dean later recounted the conversation in testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee — drawing on his prodigious memory, not contemporaneous notes — he told the senators, “I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and if the cancer was not removed that the president himself would be killed by it. I also told him that it was important that this cancer be removed immediately because it was growing more deadly every day…”
The Nixon White House and its Republican cheerleaders savaged Dean, but Nixon’s own secret taping system eventually vindicated Dean’s accuracy and truthfulness. His actual words were, “I think, I think that, uh, there’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’re, we’ve got. We have a cancer within, close to the Presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now because it compounds itself.”
Despite his near-total recall, Dean slightly misquoted himself about the cancer: he did not tell Nixon, “the president himself would be killed by it.” That distinction, I think, is suddenly important.
Dean may have been the first to apply the metaphor nearly 50 years ago, but it recently took on new relevance for me when the Mueller report was released in the interval between the time I received my own cancer diagnosis, and the day I was scheduled for surgery. As I was glumly pondering my own situation against a backdrop of depressing national news, Dean’s words came back to me.
In context, Dean was specifically warning Nixon that within the larger coverup scheme, the Watergate burglars were demanding higher cash payments to keep their silence, and that these growing blackmail demands were like a spreading cancer that threatened the presidency. What Dean couldn’t have known at the time was that for the previous nine months, Nixon himself had been personally directing the Watergate coverup through his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, including a scheme to order FBI director L. Patrick Gray to shut down the investigation by falsely telling him that it would impinge on classified CIA activities.
It took a secret White House recording system, summer-long Senate committee hearings, and a Supreme Court fight to finally obtain the infamous “smoking gun” tape that provided irrefutable evidence of Nixon’s obstruction of justice. Only three days after the Supreme Court ordered its release, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment. When Nixon finally released the tape a week later, its revelations were so devastating that even the Republicans on the committee voting against impeachment said they would now support it. With the collapse of his support in the House, and likely conviction in the Senate, Nixon faced a Hobson’s choice: become the first president to resign, or the first to be impeached and removed. He quit three days later.
And now here we are 45 years later, with a president who, unlike Nixon, has quite openly sought to interfere with or shut down completely both the regular FBI and Special Counsel investigations into his presidential campaign and related activities. The potential misconduct includes conspiring with Wikileaks and Russian officials to benefit from stolen campaign data and surreptitious efforts to sabotage his rival’s candidacy through social media, as well as illegal campaign payoffs to keep Trump paramours quiet before the election.
We didn’t even need the Mueller report to tell us these things; they have been widely reported, albeit in somewhat less detail, in a variety of outlets over the last three years. Yet the Democratic leadership has all but taken impeachment off the table, and Senate Republicans seem determined to protect the president at all costs, no matter the extent of his criminality.
Between my cancer and this presidency, my thoughts returned to John Dean. He worried that administration misconduct was growing so pervasive it threatened the survival of the administration if something wasn’t done. But it would be another 16 months before Congress summoned the will to remove the cancer to save the presidency.
When my doctor identified a malignant melanoma, she warned that I would need additional surgery to ensure that it didn’t spread into my lymphatic system, at which point it might be too late. The day of the surgery, the surgeon asked for permission to proceed. Alternatively, he suggested, we could monitor the situation, with no assurance we would catch it in time.
I was literally betting my life, and I didn’t like the odds. “Let’s do it,” I told him.
My forearm now carries a nasty-looking two-inch scar, which if I’m lucky will eventually heal into a less dramatic reminder of my unexpected brush with mortality. Nobody can guarantee a successful outcome, but my prospects have improved significantly.
And so it is with the Trump administration. Here, too, a growing cancer threatens the presidency, and once again, it is the president himself. House Democrats can slow-roll impeachment, trying to run out the clock with committee investigations the way Republicans did with Benghazi hearings, while the cancer stealthily seeps through the system. Or they can affirmatively act on the danger and begin removing the cancer before it’s too late.
As we are constantly reminded about the Republican Senate, there is no guarantee of success in this process, either. Either way, America will carry a painful and disfiguring political scar of its own as a sobering reminder that democratic institutions are as mortal as men — and when put to the test, perhaps not as healthy, robust and resilient as we liked to imagine.
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