Can Trump do a Nixon and re-enter polite society? Elizabeth Drew doubts it

Martin Pengelly in New York
·4 min read
<span>Composite: Getty</span>
Composite: Getty

Asking if Donald Trump can rehabilitate himself in US public life as did a disgraced president before him, legendary Washington reporter Elizabeth Drew was not optimistic.

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“For all their similarities,” she wrote, “Nixon and Trump clearly are very different men. For one thing, Nixon was smart.”

Drew, 85 and the author of the classic Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall, published her thoughts in the Washington Post.

“Donald Trump and Richard Nixon both left Washington in helicopters and ignominy,” she wrote, “awash in financial problems and their customary self-pity.

“Both were above-average paranoiacs who felt (with some justification) that the elites looked down on them and that enemies everywhere sought to undermine them; they despised the press, exploited racism for political purposes and used inept outside agents (the “plumbers,” Rudy Giuliani) to carry out their more nefarious plots.

“Neither was inclined to let aides rein them in. Both faced impeachment for trying to manipulate the opposition party’s nomination contest. Both degraded the presidency. Both came unglued at the end.

“But then, astonishingly, Nixon rehabilitated himself … [his] post-presidency was a quest to make himself respectable again and it worked … through wit, grit, wiliness and determination he wrought one of the greatest resurrections in American politics.

“If he could do it, can Trump?”

Her short answer? No.

Impeached a second time, Trump now awaits trial in Florida, playing golf but keeping himself involved in Republican politics, making endorsements, sitting on $70m in campaign cash and entertaining thoughts of starting a new political party, if reportedly mostly as a way of revenging himself on Republicans who crossed him.

Drew wrote of how after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, to avoid impeachment over the Watergate scandal, the 37th president went into exile in California. But she also cited his deep background in US politics and institutions – as a former congressman, senator and vice-president who “essentially understood the constitution and limits, even if he overreached at times” – and how, “interested in the substance of governing, he studied white papers and was conversant in most topics the government touched.”

Drew also discussed the way Nixon set about re-entering public life, mostly as a sage voice on foreign policy, and eventually moved back east to become “the toast of New York” and, in 1979, one of Gallup’s “10 most admired people in the world”. Ruthlessly, she wrote, Nixon even managed to force his way back into the White House, visiting (under the cover of night) to counsel the young Bill Clinton.

Trump, Drew wrote, “lacks discipline, intellectual rigour and the doggedness Nixon used to pull himself up from the bottom.”

But on the day the solidly pro-Trump Arizona Republican party formally censured grandees Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake and Doug Ducey for daring to cross Trump, Drew also had a warning.

“Trump has one advantage Nixon didn’t,” Drew wrote, “even after the assault on the Capitol this month: a large and fanatically devoted following.

“According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released 15 January, 79% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents still approved of his performance. Trump of course had the backing of many Fox News hosts, and … some still supported the Trump line about the 6 January attack on the Capitol (for example, that it was spawned by a leftwing group). There was no such thing as Fox in Nixon’s day.”

Related: Is Donald Trump in Watergate territory yet? | Elizabeth Drew

Though Drew thought Trump unlikely to gain access to mainstream media, as Nixon famously did via interviews with David Frost, and has been suspended by Twitter and Facebook, she did note that he “still has the support of fringe networks like One America News and Newsmax”.

“If Trump is canny enough and has the energy,” she wrote, “he will have already begun devising ways to heal his battered reputation with much of the public and, in particular, the Republican politicians who indulged him for years.

“But unlike Nixon, Trump faces a paradox: how can he maintain the support of his rabble-rousing followers, particularly if he wants to run again in 2024 or simply remain a force in in the GOP, while building respectability among the broader public?”