On the night of Aug. 8, 1974, Richard M. Nixon went before the American people to announce his resignation in light of the Watergate scandal.
Admitting that on occasion his actions “were wrong,” America’s infamous former president would make no confession to the “high crimes and misdemeanors” charged against him by the House Judiciary Committee, according to The Washington Post.
In his five-and-a-half years as the 37th president of the United States, Nixon became America’s first truly plebiscitary president — meaning that his administration sought only to be held accountable by election or impeachment.
The Nixon administration would not be held responsible to Congress, the press nor the people.
The charges levied against his administration were far-reaching and, now, provide a glimpse into how an office of great notability can be corrupted by a man with little respect for the Republican ideals of leadership.
For Nixon, concentrated authority led to the abuse of impoundment and executive privilege; it set in motion a secret air war against Cambodia in 1969-1970; it continued the Vietnam War long after the repeal of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution; and it reinstated a second bombing campaign in Cambodia following the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.
But the myriad of other activities his administration would implement goes even further: burglary, forgery, perjury, illegal wiretapping, illegal electronic surveillance, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, conspiracy to involve government agencies, tampering with witnesses — and more left out.
The office of the president was saturated with power and Nixon wielded that authority. But his house of cards would collapse.
While observing the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, political commentator and reporter Walter Lippmann noted that Nixon’s administration “show[ed] how very vulnerable our constitutional system is. If the national government falls into the hands of sufficiently unprincipled or unscrupulous men, they can do terrible things before any one can stop them.”
Now, roughly half a century later, what lessons could we learn from this moment of American history? Nixon’s actions did not occur in some historical vacuum.
Could something similar happen during a time of heightened crisis in which governance by decree is not only effective but publicly popular?
Last March, when confronted by the forthcoming challenges of COVID-19, state lawmakers swiftly retreated back to their quiet uptown villages, conveniently ignoring the ubiquitous disorder and confusion.
As pandemic fever quickly spread from person to person and toilet paper was limited in supply, state legislatures — the organ of government most attune to the needs of ordinary Americans — decided to take on an insignificant role, according to The Associated Press.
Then, with little institutional integrity left of which to speak, state lawmakers relinquished a score of their powers over to the office of governor, in a bid to speed up the naturally slow decision-making processes of self-governance.
This was precisely the case for New York state, and the rising tide of executive leadership came with the expected consequences.
In the early morning hours of March 3, 2020, the New York state legislature quietly approved a $40 million emergency funding bill, granting the governor a multitude of new emergency powers to combat the outbreak of COVID-19, according to the Gothamist.
The initiative included specific definitional changes, shifting the wording of a disaster from a “past occurrence” to a thing that is “impending.”
It also added the term “disease outbreak” to the list of legitimate disaster events, giving Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York the elusive powers “necessary to cope with” a broad list of potential disaster scenarios — superseding the decisions of local and individual authorities.
Under the new bill, the governor was given more authority to issue affirmative directives, which can do things like close schools, close dining spots, restrict sporting events and create color-coded zones with different levels of limitations, according to WTEN-TV.
With all of this new authority, how would it be put to use?
Cuomo’s administration issued over 40 executive orders and altered over 250 laws in only the first four months of accumulating this power. The sweeping changes included the controversial nursing home policy, the closure of schools and businesses and the public mask mandate, according to WXXI-FM.
A strong argument could be made that these changes may have been necessary. But the gubernatorial edicts expanded to include other, more irregular, changes to New York state laws.
According to The Intercept, the administration signed executive orders which effectively canceled five special elections, granted Cuomo’s office new powers over the state budget and threatened to strip funding from the New York Department of Health.
With this knowledge, it’s easier to understand why nine of Cuomo’s top health officials resigned, all citing one similar reason.
“Their concern had an almost singular focus: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo,” The New York Times reported.
“Even as the pandemic continues to rage and New York struggles to vaccinate a large and anxious population, Mr. Cuomo has all but declared war on his own public health bureaucracy.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Democratic attorney general, Letitia James, issued a report in which her office claimed that Cuomo’s administration purposely undercounted COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent.
After all of this, according to WXXI, some state lawmakers and public interest groups have attempted to reign in some of the governor’s power.
“What we’re arguing for is a return to the American form of democracy, a system of checks and balances,” Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group Blair Horner said.
“If the governor doesn’t like that, of course he’s entitled to his opinion, but it’d be a debate he’d have to have with Thomas Jefferson, not with us.”
However, when asked about the proposed idea, Cuomo labeled it as “stupid,” saying, “And stupid is a strong word, but sometimes it’s just stupid.”
So, what are the takeaways?
Lord Acton’s famous proverb, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is a timeless historical lesson. But, if it’s that simple, why did lawmakers choose to empower the governor?
For the sake of analogy, it’s easy to imagine that in the moment of crisis, the structure of government — legislative, executive, judiciary — is similar to the composition of an occupied car. The governor is the driver of the vehicle, the bureaucratic compadres are sitting in the passenger seat and state lawmakers and judges are taking up the back.
The logic of this move is fairly practical, and when it’s applied in moderation, it is an effective means to tackle large-scale problems.
The reasoning goes: State lawmakers defer leadership to a more consolidated authority, like a governor, when quick and decisive decision-making is necessary. Concentrating power in the executive branch has practical value, as that office has access to reputable sources of intelligence, exclusive debate and secrecy.
These tools have historically been used by wise executives to make tough decisions in times of unease.
But this reasoning fails to paint the entire picture. Like we saw with Nixon, the powers don’t intrinsically result in good governing. While some may use power to prudent ends, others cannot ignore the temptation to abuse it.
Cuomo was tasked with the monumental responsibility of ensuring the safety of his entire population, and he sought to accomplish that feat by any means necessary. In his eyes, the means justified the end. If withholding nursing home deaths from state and national authorities preserved his grasp on power, Cuomo seemed to believe that decision was the right one.
What we’ve learned is that government, by executive and bureaucratic decree with little legislative oversight, is a receipt for disaster.
If a government must plunge into a period of emergency, it is absolutely necessary for it to retain accountability and consent from the people it governs. Once those bonds are broken, the very fabrics of free government become untethered.
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