GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — You have to drive all the way to the banks of the Grand River — and travel back four decades — to get the full meaning of the national furor over electronic surveillance. For here, within the walls of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, are the artifacts that transformed the lawmaker from Michigan’s fifth congressional district into the 38th president of the United States — and that provide the evidence from 1972 that explains the importance of the debate in 2013.
Presidential museums often are palaces of the pretend, but the Ford Museum is a metaphor for the understated nature of the Grand Rapids congressman who was catapulted into the presidency during the gravest constitutional crisis of our history.
The implements that began that crisis, its raw materials, are in a glass display case here. They are a pair of long-nose pliers, a Phillips-head screwdriver and some crude listening bugs placed in two tubes of Chap Stick. Later, a Sony four-speed Servo Control tape recorder, also on display here, with a red button emblazoned “REC,” helped bring down Richard M. Nixon. Watergate was about many specifics, but its spirit was secret surveillance.
Now, the 44th president, Barack Obama, 10 years old when the burglars entered the Watergate suite, is engulfed by questions about secret surveillance of an entirely different magnitude. If it is unseemly how his critics on the right are rushing toward impeachment talk, it is equally unseemly for his supporters on the left to brush away the issues this new set of questions have raised.
The politics will take its own course, and given the nature of contemporary Washington, we can bet that the big issues will be ignored and the little issues will be pressed for mean partisan advantage. It would be the same if a Republican were in the White House. The atmosphere is that bad and the instincts of the principals are that puerile.