Last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was punked by a website reporter claiming to be billionaire David Koch. The tape of their 20-minute phone conversation was posted on the internet, leading to an all-too-brief firestorm around Walker’s comments.
The reaction that interests me is this one, from Tim Carpenter, a Wisconsin State Senator, who wrote: “Governor Walker, this tape would make Richard Nixon blush.”
Carpenter evidently has not been listening to the Nixon tapes.
Whenever a politician is caught on tape, the Nixon analogy is the easy one. But there’s a danger in it. We have a wealth of material, thousands of hours of Nixon. What they reveal is a singularly unappealing portrait. No one tape, not even Walker’s, can live up to that record. As a result, whoever is compared to Nixon fairly comes off looking, at least comparatively, not so bad.
Nixon’s White House tapes are infamous for their revelations of Nixon’s prejudices. There are many examples, but just last December a new crop of tapes was released that included the following gems:
“Virtually every Irish I've known gets mean when he drinks. It's sort of a natural trait. Particularly the real Irish."
(I can’t help wondering if my German ancestry would disqualify me from Nixon’s concept of “real Irish.”)
"The Italians, of course, just don't have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but . . ."
"The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality."
“The Jews are born spies.”
But it isn’t just prejudice that Nixon reveals in his tapes, it is his criminal proclivities.
Over the years, one of the most common red herrings of Nixon defenders has been the claim that there is no documentary proof that Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in. That is true. But we do know that he ordered a break-in of the liberal think tank the Brookings Institution:
“I want the Brookings Institution cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that has somebody else take the blame."
It’s hardly a stretch to think that the man we know was capable of ordering the one was also capable of ordering the other.
Now, nothing like that is present on the Walker tape. And that’s precisely the problem with Carpenter’s analogy. By using rhetoric that compares Walker’s comments to the depths of Nixon’s depravity, he gives Walker an easy out—because Walker on this tape is demonstrably not as bad as Nixon on his.
What is there in the Walker tape, however, is plenty bad enough.
Start with this simple fact: while Walker complained about a “group of protesters almost all of whom are in from other states,” he spent 20 minutes talking freely with a major campaign donor from out of state. Hardly surprising, but telling.
Also telling is Walker’s eagerness to share his strategy with the caller he believes is Koch. According to his office, Walker has never met or spoken to Koch. But the fake Koch asks one question and Walker is off to the races. A look at the transcript shows no reticence at all on Walker’s part. And what he so freely shares is revealing.
We learn that Walker intended to trick the Democratic state senators who have left the state to prevent Walker’s union busting legislation from passing. He said he intended to tell the Democrats that he would “talk” to them, get them to come back to Wisconsin, and then refuse to actually negotiate. In the meantime, the senate would have gone into session and he could get his legislation passed. In other words, he revealed that he is not to be trusted.
That, sadly, is just politics. What’s more disturbing is Walker’s reaction to the fake Koch’s suggestion of “planting some troublemakers.” Walker responded: “we thought about that.” He goes on to explain that he decided not to, but only because it might backfire politically. At no point does he offer any suggestion that deliberately provoking violence for political gain is an inherently bad idea.
Now, one of two things is true. Either Walker really did consider doing so, in which case he should resign right now, or he lied when he said he considered it. In other words, the best-case scenario is that Walker never thought about it, and merely lied to the fake Koch to avoid contradicting the rich and powerful man at the other end of the phone.
In either case, Scott Walker is no leader. He either is truly amoral and somewhat Nixonian in the tactics he considered, or so beholden to powerful interests that he will not tell them that their suggestions are both illegal and immoral.
Admittedly, pretending to agree with the criminal suggestions of a wealthy campaign contributor does not rise to the level of Nixon’s perfidy. But shouldn’t our standard for those who purport to lead us be higher than that?