Despite his fall from power (his plummet from the highest office in the United States), the late Richard Milhous Nixon is still considered by many people to have been one of the United States’ finest presidents and one of the world’s most astute political strategists.
The many books, his memoirs and historical analyses that he wrote in the years after resigning to avoid being impeached by Congress, have always been read with admiration and mined for ideas and inspirations to bolster the philosophies and careers of young, aspiring politicians — mostly those with a conservative bent. That includes the currently embattled MP for Labrador, Peter Penashue, the sitting federal minister of intergovernmental affairs.
Would that Nixon had somewhere in his writings included a few chapters about the dangers of getting into a conflict of interest, but unfortunately he never seemed to appreciate them himself. Lacking that appreciation, he was unable to warn his followers away from the precipice he himself tumbled over, the one Penashue is now staring down.
Nothing in Nixon’s work will help the MP step back. The late president seemed blind to his true offence against democracy and so, in place of reasoned advice based on his own experience, he only offered excuses and sought to shift blame away from himself — no solutions at all.
Intelligent Nixon certainly was. Dedicated and courageous, too. He not only overcame early difficulties to become president on his second try, he also astounded expectations by transforming both his country and the world in remarkable ways — establishing relations with Communist China being the most surprising example.
Nixon’s flaws, however, were so serious they will forever taint his legacy as president and his advice to acolytes. Unfortunately, the flaws appear to be contagious.
No one can accuse Peter Penashue of not having the intelligence, strength and courage needed to overcome tremendous difficulties. The story of his life likely shocks most of his Ottawa colleagues, if they’re curious enough to inquire.
Penashue’s road from childhood led him through the darkest of times, but he was able to overcome even the harm he did to himself and he eventually emerged into adulthood as a strong, serious and sober man, truly dedicated to bettering himself and his community.
He has been successful because he has always been willing to do the work that was necessary to achieve his goals. However, like Nixon, he has also been willing to do more than is proper in a healthy democracy merely for the sake of winning. He has allowed the lines between his public and private lives to become hopelessly blurred because, like Nixon, he seems not to really understand that they are there for an important reason.
It wasn’t Tricky Dick’s dirty election tricks that did him in. The break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters was against the law, even for Republican operatives, but Nixon could possibly have escaped any serious consequences if he’d come clean and tried to make amends.
Instead, he tried to use the powers of the presidency to cover up the botched crime and that’s when he started down the road towards impeachment — never, apparently, understanding his true offence to American democracy: public office should never be used for partisan or private gain.
Any difficulties Penashue is experiencing with his political career stem from that same flaw. As a politician dedicated to his cause, he has perhaps misjudged the dangers of crossing the lines that should divide his professional and personal lives. The actions he has admitted committing during the last federal campaign demonstrate his willingness to let his interests conflict.
It’s that willingness that has made the MP’s current problems so bad. He could perhaps easily survive an overspending scandal, since the penalty could be as little as a $1,000 fine, but there’s a clear appearance that he used family connections to commit the admitted infractions against the Elections Act.
In Canada’s parliamentary tradition, the mere appearance of a conflict of interest is supposed to be enough to bring about the resignation of a minister of the Crown.
If Penashue follows Nixon’s road to its logical conclusion, he’ll honour that tradition and will soon be stepping down before he’s forced out.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.