Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Electoral College Hampered: The Case of Nixon’s 1968 Campaign Treason

While he was running for the U.S. presidency in 1968, Richard Nixon told H.R. Haldeman “that they should find a way to secretly ‘monkey wrench’ peace talks in Vietnam” by trying to get the South Vietnamese government to refuse to attend peace talks in Paris until after the U.S. election.[1] Specifically, Nixon gave instructions that Anna Chennault, a Republican fundraiser, should keep “working on” South Vietnamese officials so they would not agree to a peace agreement before the U.S. election.[2] “Potentially, this is worse than anything he did in Watergate,” said John Farrell, who discovered evidence of Nixon’s involvement from Haldeman’s notes on a conversation with the candidate. That Nixon committed a crime to win the election is itself an indication that the way Americans elect the federal president was flawed. That he went on to cover up the Watergate crime committed during the 1972 campaign only to win by a landslide should give pause to anyone having faith in an unchecked popular election.  I contend that the American Founders had designed the Electoral College in part to catch such a candidate from becoming president, even if the College had never operated as such. Yet it could.
 Through surveillance, President Johnson learned of Chennault’s intervention at the behest of the Nixon campaign. Privately, the president believed that the intervention amounted to treason, though he said nothing publicly, lacking proof of Nixon’s personal involvement. “There’s really no doubt this was a step beyond the normal political jockeying, to interfere in an active peace negotiation given the stakes with all the lives.”[3] Johnson was planning on announcing a bombing pause precisely to encourage the South Vietnamese to the table. Thanks to Farrell’s discovery, we know that Nixon did indeed attempt to undermine U.S. policy. Put another way, he put his own ambition above his country’s national security and interest.
One of the purposes of the Electoral College, as designed, is to act as a check on the American electorate, which can be misled by designing candidates. With so many Americans—even just the seven million at the time of the commencement of the U.S. federal constitution—it could not be assumed that the voters could have enough information on the candidates to take their actual activities into account. The relatively few electors in the Electoral College, however, could uncover non-publicized information pertinent to a good judgment on whom should be president. Electors, for example, could have spoken with Johnson and done some digging on their own to get to the bottom of whether Nixon had committed treason to get elected. Because the electors “work for” the American people, which is sovereign over the government, government intel would have rightly been available to the electors.
“It is my personal view that disclosure of the Nixon-sanctioned actions by [Anna] Chennault would have been so explosive and damaging to the Nixon 1968 campaign that Huber Humphrey would have been elected president, said Tom Johnson, the note taker in the Johnson White House meetings about this episode.[4] So had the presidential electors of the Electoral College been free of the Republican party and cognizant of their function to make up for deficiencies in the popular election, Nixon may not have been elected president in 1968. The “great national nightmare” of Watergate would have been averted. Unfortunately, the selection of president was limited to public information, and the media was not able to make up the difference by getting to the root of the story.
We can look back at all this as a failure in the Electoral College and ask how the electors therein can be selected in such a way that their function as a check on the deficiencies of the popular judgment is enabled and protected. Allowing the political parties to select the electors can be regarded as an obstacle. Perhaps a given state’s electors could be selected in several ways—each elector being determined in a different way—such that no dominant power could subvert the College. The state legislature, for instance, could select one, the governor another. The state’s supreme court still another. A few more could be elected directly by the people by region. Perhaps having electors serve rotating multi-year terms might protect electors from undue external influence so they could resist popular or concentrated private pressure at election time. Paradoxically, American democracy would be strengthened, rather than diminished. The unearthed evidence of Nixon’s pre-election treason demonstrates how faulty the grounds of popular, public judgment can be at the ballot-box.

[1] Peter Baker, “Nixon Sought ‘Monkey Wrench’ in Vietnam Talks,” The New York Times, January 3, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.