The System Worked

by evanmcmurry

From Frank Rich’s NYT review of Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge, about the conservative movement following Nixon’s resignation:

Once Nixon did make way for Ford, the bipartisan rapture in Washington was off the charts. Of 81 articles in The Times on the day Ford was sworn in, Perlstein writes, two-thirds “resounded with the very same theme: The resignation proved no American was above the law, that the system worked, that the nation was united and at peace with itself.” The new president was hailed universally as “dependable, solid, uncontroversial — just like the cars Ford built.” But as Perlstein adds, “wasn’t it also the case to partisans of Chevrolets, Fords were controversial indeed? And that Americans, being Americans, had always found things to passionately disagree about, to the point of violent rage — and that when American elites reached most insistently for talismans of national unity, it usually portended further civil wars?” So it was with the euphoric celebration of national unity that greeted Ford’s swearing in: The moment he pardoned Nixon a month later, the country’s civil war resumed just where it had left off. Even the false honeymoon of reconciliation that greeted the election of America’s first black president lasted a little longer than that.

The shorthand version of Nixon’s pardon is that the nation needed to move on, our long national nightmare is finally over, etc. Rich’s counter-gloss suggests that the nation was perfectly capable of moving on with its long national nightmare becoming a specific penal one for Nixon — and that when it didn’t, the specter of Nixon’s individual corruption was revealed, permanently, as the structural corruption of American politics.

Incidentally, “the system worked” is becoming an increasingly common response to the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, in which two rounds of (insufficient) stimulus were passed in a hurry and a wide array of automatic stabilizers kicked in to keep the economy from flying off a cliff, basically as they were intended to do. The dying economy got a huge shot of Keynesian policies, and they worked exactly as Keynes said they would.

I think this is correct, but it bumps right up against the lack of jailed bankers. The above reading of Nixon’s pardon suggests that “the system worked” extends exactly as far as accountability is apportioned out; to the extent that the corruption that led to the catalyzing event is allowed to continue, the system isn’t working — or, in fact, it’s working in conjunction with the original crimes, preserving the conditions that produced them in the first place. John Dean and the rare trader wearing prison stripes isn’t the system working.