We are trapped in a news cycle that tracks like a disturbing mescaline flashback

Trump’s lies, duplicity, hypocrisy and criminality are worse than Nixon's

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published May 16, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Richard Nixon; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)
Richard Nixon; Donald Trump (AP/Getty/Salon)

In just the last few days:

Jared and Ivanka gave happy-talk speeches at the Grand Opening of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem, sharing the stage with two Trump-loving, Jew-hating, Muslim-hating, Catholic-bashing conservative Protestant “ministers,” James Hagee and Robert Jeffress, who were called upon to offer up “prayers” blessing the new embassy. At the same moment, less than 40 miles away, along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, 52 Palestinian protesters were killed by Israel Defense Forces in demonstrations against the embassy opening.

The man who berated China as a “currency manipulator” and for its unfair trade practices and theft of American jobs during his campaign, lifted trade restrictions on the Chinese telecommunications giant, ZTE, which had been sanctioned by the Department of Commerce only a month ago from using American components in its smartphones. Three days previously, a Trump businesses concern was the beneficiary of a $500 million loan from the Chinese government for a project in Indonesia that will feature Trump-branded hotels, a golf course and condo developments, laying waste to the meaning of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

The Trump White House, which only weeks ago was denouncing as “filthy” and “mean” the jokes told by comedian Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents Dinner, refused to apologize for a “joke” by aide Kelly Sadler, who told fellow White House staffers that they didn’t have to worry about John McCain not supporting Gina Haspel for CIA Director because “he’s dying anyway.” The current president of the United States took advantage of no less than five deferments, including a doctor’s diagnosis of “bone spurs” on his heels, to avoid being drafted during the time John McCain was locked up for five and a half years as a POW in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

Senator McCain still cannot raise either of his arms above shoulder level due to injuries he received while being shot down and tortured in North Vietnam. President Trump has spent 114 days walking around his golf courses on his “bone spurs” since taking office in January of 2016.

Through the looking glass, anyone? Up is down, and down is up? Is that Wavy Gravy over there with the face-splitting grin, or is it Jared Kushner? Can anybody tell anymore?

If every day in Trumpland feels like a mescaline flashback, it’s because we’ve been here before.

Richard Nixon ran for office in 1968 talking about “peace in our time” and a “secret plan” to end the war. In March of 1969, just one month after taking office, he ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia, dropping more bombs on that country in the next 14 months than we dropped during all of World War II. The 48th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, when, “to keep the peace,” National Guardsmen opened fire on student demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine, was just over a week ago. One month from now will be the 46th anniversary of the break in by the White House “plumbers” at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. in 1972, a crime overseen by the man who ran for the presidency on a platform of “law and order.”

The levels of lying, duplicity, hypocrisy and outright criminality are about the same, and covering Trump is unnervingly reminiscent of covering Nixon. There is the same feeling that the whole thing is a mescaline dreamscape from which you can’t come down. Everything is too bright, too fast, too weird. Every time you think you’ve reached a pinnacle in the story, it keeps going up and up and up. Revelations about Russian oligarchs morph into tales about strippers and Playboy playmates, which morph into secret meetings on islands in the Indian Ocean, which turn into millions of dollars skimmed off billion dollar Russian oil deals.

It was the same way covering Nixon. I remember getting ready to fly down to Miami to cover the Republican National Convention in August of 1972. I had a handful of large capsules of mescaline I had received as a gift in Colorado Springs a few years earlier and packed them into my carry-on, thinking I would need them that week. (No TSA inspections then, nothing even close). That was the way we did it back then. Just wade completely twisted on mescaline into a whole fucking city filled with blue haired women waving American flags and paunchy golfers in straw boaters covered in Nixon campaign buttons and let the whole thing wash over you in waves of weirdness.

I went down to Miami for the Saturday Review, a magazine published weekly at that time. I arrived a few days before the convention got underway, so there wasn't much to cover right away. Delegates from dusty Republican outposts in Kansas and North Dakota were trickling into the Fontainebleau Hotel. Busses were arriving out on Collins Avenue filled with cherry-cheeked Young Republicans, who were being dispatched by Nixon campaign workers to a nearby office where they were put to work filling helium balloons and scribbling on placards. The Nixon campaign wanted their campaign signs to seem authentically homemade on the convention floor a few days hence.

My friend Hunter Thompson, who was there for Rolling Stone, and I were sipping margaritas in the Poodle Lounge just off the lobby in the Fontainebleau Hotel when a young woman with a bouffant hairdo ran in off the street and yelled out that Sammy Davis Jr. was checking into the Doral Hotel next door. We didn’t have anything else to do, so we decided to walk over and see if we could get an interview. Sammy Davis Jr. had recently endorsed Nixon, one of the few stars of music or screen to do so. Looking around the lobby for Sammy, we instead found two Young Republicans dressed in red, white and blue shirts with big “NIXON” buttons directing reporters to a press conference. The Republican National Committee was using the occasion of a slow news day to introduce "Celebrities for Nixon."

The press conference was crowded with reporters and TV cameras, since there was nothing else to cover that day, and everyone wanted out of the steam bath-like August heat in south Florida. Thompson and I took a couple of seats in the back as the "celebrities" filed in: Glenn Ford, John Wayne, Kitty Carlisle and Mary Ann Mobley, a washed-up former Miss America. That was it.

RNC Chairman Bob Dole took the mic and introduced his sterling crew of "celebrities" and then took questions. The graybeards of the national press corps sitting up front tossed a few softballs to Glenn Ford and John Wayne, and the whole thing was starting to lag when Thompson turned to me and said, "nobody's asking about Watergate."

He was right. The biggest story of the day . . . hell of the decade . . . was being completely ignored by the national press. Thompson stood up and yelled out "When is Nixon going to fire John Mitchell?”

Mitchell was chairman of CREEP, the Committee to Re-elect the President, and was being named in stories about the burglary. Dole chuckled, ignoring the question, and turned to the reporters for the national newsweeklies and major papers in the front rows. “What about the slush fund?” Thompson yelled.

I jumped up and asked about the “Howard Hughes’ $100,000,” cash that was reported to have been passed from Hughes to Nixon through Nixon’s pal, Bebe Rebozo, and was thought to have been used to pay off the burglars after they had been arrested, to keep them quiet.

We were asking questions about arcane details of the Watergate scandal that were just being revealed but which indicated that the conspiracy reached right into the Nixon White House. But this was the first press conference of Nixon’s coronation at the upcoming convention, and Dole wasn’t having any of it. Neither were the reporters seated upfront. At least a dozen of them turned around in their seats and told us to sit down and shut up. “Show us your press credentials!” one of the reporters cried out. “Let’s see yours!” Thompson shouted back. He stayed on his feet and yelled out to John Wayne: "Mr. Wayne, you're a big supporter of the War in Vietnam. A group of Vietnam Veterans are just down Collins Avenue. Will you walk down there with us to meet them when this is over?" Wayne managed a thin smile and said . . . this is a quote . . . "Why sure, pardner."

Thompson was referring to a nearby encampment of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

The reporters up front kept shouting at us to sit down and shut up, but we remained standing. I was yelling, “what about Watergate?” and Thompson looked like he was about to climb over the empty chairs in front of us and go for the throat of the loudest asshole telling us to shut up. The “celebrity” press conference had devolved into a shouting match by the time Bob Dole grabbed a mic and called out that it was over.

Thompson and I followed Wayne and Ford out a side door, and when we caught up with them, Thompson asked Wayne if he was ready to meet with the Vietnam vets. Wayne stopped and laughed right in his face: "You don't think I was serious, do you, son?" Ford joined in laughing, Wayne threw his arm around his friend and they headed down the hall. "I need a goddamned drink," Wayne said as they pushed through glass doors into the sunshine.

A couple of days later, there were demonstrations outside the Fontainebleau. The cops broke them up with night-sticks and tear gas until the VVAW came marching down Collins Avenue in their jungle boots and fatigue jackets in total silence. They reached the front of the Fontainebleau and lined up in neat ranks, completely blocking traffic on Collins Avenue, but the cops did nothing. Several vets spoke out against the war, and then they gave a hand-held loudspeaker to Ron Kovic, and angrily, but calmly and with great dignity from his wheelchair, he gave his famous speech denouncing the old men who had sent so many thousands of boys to death and disfigurement.

Nine thousand miles away in Vietnam, 25,000 U.S. combat troops were still fighting and dying. The South Vietnamese Army suffered 25,000 deaths that year. 140,000 NVA and VC were killed. Nobody knows how many Vietnamese civilians died.

Less than a month later, a story in The Washington Post by two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, linked Nixon campaign chairman John Mitchell to a slush fund used to pay the burglars at the Watergate, and he was fired from the campaign. A year later he was indicted for various Watergate crimes and a couple of years after that he was convicted and sent to jail. Nixon, of course, was caught covering up the Watergate crime, was impeached, and less than two years after the Republican Convention and his re-election, resigned in disgrace.

Yesterday I re-read the story I wrote in The Saturday Review and Thompson’s piece on the convention, collected in his book, “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72,” looking specifically for references to either of us taking drugs during the time we were in Miami. I remember right after I got to Miami being up in Thompson’s suite at the Fontainebleau comparing stashes. We were both well prepared. But I didn’t find a single reference to mescaline or anything else.

Reality was weird enough. Everything was happening at once, and faster than we could keep up: the war in Vietnam; the Watergate break-in; Nixon's re-election; demonstrations against the war and against Nixon; the endless investigation of Nixon and his henchmen in the White House; the firing of Mitchell; the firing of Haldeman and Ehrlichman; the “Saturday night massacre” firing of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus; the firing, indictment and trial of dozens of White house hangers-on and factotums; the impeachment of Nixon; his resignation; the ascendance of Ford and his pardon of Nixon.

You don’t need mescaline now, either. Trumpland is every bit as weird as Nixonland.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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