The enemies list

Heads of government aren’t supposed to punish their critics. That may be normal in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not normal in putative democracies.

Nixon did it anyway.

Nixon’s Enemies List, officially called his “Opponents List,” was a document that was initially compiled by presidential advisor George T. Bell for Charles Colson, the infamous “hatchet man.” Colson turned over the list to White House Counsel John Dean on September 9, 1971. The list, which at first included 20 names, was a compilation of figures from all walks of life, ranging from the actor Paul Newman (“Radic-Lib causes … Heavy McCarthy involvement ’68”) to journalists such as Mary McGrory and Daniel Schorr (a “real media enemy”) to politicians like the African American legislators Ron Dellums and John Conyers (“a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman”), to the labor leader Leonard Woodstock, president of the United Auto Workers. The New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath even made the document.

The goal of the Enemies List was to highlight and target some of the president’s most pesky critics. The document described “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”

The White House attempted to use numerous tactics to go after these figures. The Internal Revenue Service turned to audits as a method of harassment, while federal contracts became a tool to punish other perceived enemies of the state.

Enemies of the Nixon, rather.

The list remained hidden from public view. In the early 1970s, the president and his advisers assumed that doing any of this out in the open would be devastating. There was still a sense of norms that restrained an administration from publicly abusing its power in this way. Americans only learned of the list on June 27, 1973, when Dean informed the Senate Watergate Committee about what his colleagues had done. Dean told the panel that “There was also maintained, what was called, an Enemies List, which was rather extensive and continually being updated.”

The Enemies List became yet one more piece of evidence that Nixon had abused his power. In the path toward Nixon’s resignation, the shocking news that a president was willing to act in this fashion against citizens who were legitimately doing their business fueled the feeling of anger and betrayal that played into a bigger narrative of how he misused the office. Colson went to visit Senator Lowell Weicker, a Connecticut Republican, to deny compiling the list. But when Colson admitted authoring the memo about Gibbons, Weicker exploded with anger and ordered Colson out of his office.

The list made it into Article II of the impeachment charges drawn up against Nixon: “He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in the income tax returns for purposes not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”

But that was then. Now? Trump has Fox News, and Putin, and Twitter, and a pack of craven Republicans in Congress. He also has a psychopathic level of indifference to norms and rules; he does what he wants until someone can stop him.

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