Immediately upon reading Michael Whitney’s post about President Barack Obama’s statement to Logan Price about Bradley — “we are a nation of laws…. he broke the law!” — I was reminded of Richard Nixon’s statement about Charles Manson in the midst of his trial:
“Here was a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.”
What I didn’t recall from that time was that John Mitchell, easily American history’s crookedest Attorney General ever, was at Nixon’s side when he made that statement in Denver. He recognized right away that there was a serious problem with Nixon’s statement:
“This has got to be clarified,” he told Presidential Aide John Ehrlichman immediately afterward.
Even in an era of news moving only as fast as the wire services, reporters rushed to telephones and the story moved. In half an hour, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler appeared before reporters:
After some minutes of verbal fencing, Ziegler agreed that Nixon’s words about Manson should be retracted. When Ziegler told Nixon what had happened, the President was surprised: “I said ‘charged,’ ” he replied.
Which, of course, Nixon had not said. And, as in Obama’s case, there was video.
During the 3½-hour flight back to Washington, Mitchell persuaded Nixon to put out a statement backing Ziegler up. It read in part: “The last thing I would do is prejudice the legal rights of any person in any circumstances. I do not know and did not intend to speculate as to whether or not the Tate defendants are guilty, in fact, or not.”
Jurors, already sequestered in the Los Angeles, were protected from the next day’s four-inch headlines by papering over the windows of the courthouse: “MANSON GUILTY, NIXON DECLARES.” And, it should be noted, these jurors were not in a directly subordinate relationship to the commander-in-chief, as any jurors in a possible Bradley Manning court-martial would be. Even so, the judge recognized that the influence of a direct statement of guilt by the President of the United States of America would corrupt any jury.
So, in the case of Barack Obama’s statement that Bradley Manning “broke the law,” the question is: Who is Barack Obama’s John Mitchell? Who will tell him he must retract his statement? And does anyone in this Administration have the lightning-fast legal reflexes that even Attorney General John Mitchell had in August of 1970?