Term in Office: 37th president, 1969-1974
Political Party: Republican
Home State: California
“As long as Nixon was politically alive- and he was, all the way to the end- we could always be certain of finding the enemy on the low road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over and emit the smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and the tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.”
I do not often find myself reading Hunter S. Thompson, let alone agreeing with him, but the Gonzo journalist’s 1994 obituary of Nixon written in The Atlantic is spot on. What makes Richard Nixon so starkly contemptible, such a terrible, bottom-of-the-barrel president, is his determination to set Americans against one another and create an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and rancor that continues to poison the well of American civil discourse to this day.
Now, Nixon didn’t create the tensions in America on the eve of his election to be sure. Identity politics people vs. cultural traditionalists, war protestors vs. old fashioned patriots who didn’t quite grasp the problem of Vietnam, poor minorities in cities vs. affluent whites in the suburbs who couldn’t understand one another; each of these contests had far deeper roots. But he sure did his best to exacerbate these internal conflicts for his own political advancement. We needed a healer after ’68, and we got an instigator instead.
Maybe the best example of this took place in 1970, when he smilingly accepted a hard hat from a group of violent NYC construction workers who spent their lunchtime one May afternoon beating up war protestors and threatening City Hall to raise the flag they had lowered in commemoration of the four young people whom the National Guard killed at Kent State. It was a masterstroke. He then used this leverage to make unprecedented Republican inroads into working-class white Americans in 1972, blowing up the New Deal Coalition in the process. But Nixon’s Machiavellian instincts didn’t apply just to the big picture, because it was also so very, very personal. Nixon, biographer Rick Perlstein writes, was “a serial collector of resentments”, accumulating and listing and ranking everyone who crossed him, plotting revenge in isolation in the Oval Office on his yellow legal pads. (Indeed, one of the best profiles on the Nixon presidency is tellingly titled “Alone in the White House.”). The targets ranged from opposition senators to critical journalists to activist celebrities like Robert Redford and John Lennon, and to this day, many old Hollywood folk consider their place on Nixon’s vaunted Enemies List a mark of honor.
Nixon’s presidency persistently attempted to conflate opponents as enemies, dissent as subversion, and social movements as social corrosion. In it, he won over a lethargic Hee Haw-ingesting Middle America more concerned with “law and order” than, say, racism or endless war, flattering his supporters as a ‘Silent Majority’. When Nixon talked about disruptive influences in American society, everyone with two brain cells to rub together knew he meant antiwar protestors marching on campus, feminists picketing Miss America, and Black Panthers resorting to vigilantism after years of abuse from police. And he won over much of the burgeoning conservative movement, its true believers knowing in their hearts that Nixon wasn’t really one of them- but he made liberals so upset; how could they not love him?
How did we get here? To figure this out, let’s trace out Nixon’s career in four stages:
Richard the First: As a young congressman, Nixon quickly carved out a niche as a tough anti-communist crusader, avoiding McCarthyite excess, but playing a sly game of innuendo. He prosecuted Alger Hiss, served as poster boy on the reckless and unaccountable HUAC, and pioneered a comprehensive playbook of dirty tricks to dispatch liberal opponents like Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Although harangued by cartoonists like Herblock for his gutter tactics, his youth, tenacity, and his popularity with the anti-communist crowd caught the eye of nominee-presumptive Dwight Eisenhower who offered Nixon- still in his thirties- the chance to be his running mate. Accused by his opponents of harboring an illegal slush fund, and with Eisenhower ready to kick him off the ticket, Nixon pulled off the famous Checkers Speech on national television. He craftily turned the tables, transforming the issue from a question of his integrity into elitist accusations against him, including an attempt to confiscate his children’s dog, a gift from a donor. It was pure bathos (and other words beginning with the letter ‘B’), but it worked. The corn pone, the ingenious but manipulative framing of the scandal as elitists vs. ordinary people like Nixon, set the table for his career to come. Thousands wrote in, demanding Eisenhower keep this beleaguered man on the ticket.
Richard the Second: Once installed as vice-president, Nixon began a somewhat salutary metamorphosis. He and Walter Mondale deserve credit as the two men who transformed the vice-presidency from a cipher, the constitutional equivalent of an appendix or a wisdom tooth, into a useful office, defined and empowered by its very lack of definition and portfolio. Nixon thrived as a utility man and shameless lickspittle for Dwight Eisenhower. He behaved with dignity, even when harangued and pelted with eggs by anti-American protesters on a state visit to Venezuela. He impressively outdueled Nikita Khrushchev in an impromptu debate over consumer goods, defending the market economy. And he did as he was told, patiently waiting his turn. As a presidential candidate in 1960, he ran almost nobly, dutifully visiting all fifty states and refusing to use John Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism against him, even turning down Billy Graham’s offer of a public endorsement. And after turning a new leaf- he still lost, under somewhat suspicious circumstances in a close race. Nixon didn’t forget that he might have been robbed, nor did he forget the journalists who seemed to give the charming Kennedy, with his undistinguished record, a free pass at every turn. Two years later, after another hard contest, he lost again in the California governor’s race. In both cases, he tried to play fair, he tried to be the better man, and it didn’t work. In a hissy fit at a post-election press conference, a surly and irate Nixon reamed into newspapermen he felt had not been fair to him, and rancorously announced his retirement, telling the press that they ‘won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.’
Richard the Third: Enter Nixon’s next regeneration as a loyal party man. Knowing full well that Barry Goldwater would lose in 1964, Nixon played the role of the good soldier, campaigning on his behalf and making appearances for Republican candidates across the country, doing the same during the 1966 midterms, a sunnier time for Republicans. By doing this, nearly every Republican in office owed Nixon a favor or two, creating an invaluable reservoir of goodwill in order to secure the nomination from a too-liberal Nelson Rockefeller and a too-conservative-for-that-era, not-ready-for-prime-time Ronald Reagan in 1968. During these years, Nixon found the Secret Sauce for that elusive Republican victory- tear into the Democratic coalition, taking aim directly at Southerners, ready to abandon the Democrats for the first time in living memory after the Civil Rights Act, and working-class voters, who may have been economic populists, but whose cultural conservatism made their traditional Democratic loyalties shaky. The Democrats, he found, could be framed not as the party of the ‘little guy’, but the party of the effete academic, the overprivileged bra burner, the unshaven picketer who needed a bath- and maybe a conscription notice.
Which brings us to Richard the Fourth, or President Nixon. Where do we begin? He attempted to put Harrold Carswell and Clement Haynesworth, two judges with segregationist records and unspectacular intellect, to the Supreme Court for no other apparent reason than to piss off liberals. Similarly, he picked his first vice-president, Spiro Agnew, to bait his enemies as well, putting an ethically-challenged half-term governor who loved bashing leftists under the guise of patriotism (sounding like a certain Alaskan?) the proverbial one heartbeat away. Indeed, many in Washington considered Agnew’s presence ‘impeachment insurance’- nobody would dare topple Nixon knowing Agnew was the alternative.
Besides that, Nixon’s outright crimes in office are prolific. Here’s just a small sample. Nixon may have sabotaged the Paris Peace Talks as a candidate. He illegally expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia. He ordered a break-in into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find a way to damage the credibility of the journalist who made the damning Pentagon Papers public. He used the CIA to topple the democratically elected Socialist, Salvador Allende, in Chile, paving the way for the brutal but ITT-friendly Augusto Pinochet. When George Wallace was shot in 1972, his first instinct was not to visit or comfort the stricken governor, but to send operatives to plant McGovern literature in his assailant’s apartment.
And, of course, there was Watergate- both the break-in, and the subsequent cover-up, the Saturday Night Massacre, the weaponization of the Justice Department (which continues to this day), the damning tapes (and the equally damning absences therein), and a fishy pardon from his successor, which meant Nixon never answered for his crimes to any authority greater than David Frost. It was the IMAX, high-resolution, surround-sound collapse of American trust in their government.
Now, some of you might think I’m being too hard on Nixon. There’s a case to be made that Nixon was an effective pragmatist with some very real accomplishments, a point Joan Hoff makes in 1994’s Nixon Reconsidered. Surely, this argument goes, the man who signed the Clean Air Act, validated the EPA, presided over record school desegregation, ended the draft could have been all bad.
Others may point to his successes in the field of foreign relations, presiding over a period of detente with the Soviet Union, and achieving a signal accomplishment in opening relations with China. Again, I call this into question. Consider this- suppose a President Humphrey decided to visit China in 1972. Wouldn’t every major conservative Republican- perhaps egged on by private citizen Nixon- have decried Humphrey as a sell-out to international communism and a traitor to a loyal ally like Taiwan? Nixon should not, in my opinion, get credit when he created a scenario in global relations where only someone like Nixon- whose anti-communist credentials were unquestioned- could have succeeded.
Consider for a moment that almost any of Nixon’s domestic triumphs would have happened under any Democrat and any Republican opponent sans Reagan. Nixon didn’t come up with any innovative new bills; at best he dutifully signed what a relatively liberal Congress gave him. It also pisses me off that he denied us two potentially extraordinary presidents. Hubert Humphrey had a passion for justice and equality that could have done great things on a presidential level where he was no longer obligated to carry water for an LBJ bent on humiliating him. And he had executive chops from his time as mayor of Minneapolis and four years in the White House as veep to understand its innermost workings. George McGovern, if given the bully pulpit, might have forged an America that led by the power of its example, rather than the example of its power. Confucians believe that a leader’s virtue emanates throughout the rest of society. If that is true, it would have been a welcome change for McGovern’s concern for the marginalized and his hatred of all things mean-spirited to inspire Baby Boomers to commit to eliminating poverty and checking the military-industrial complex. (Although, given McGovern’s distaste for, and borderline-incompetence in, executive power, he would have needed some help, perhaps by making someone like Ramsay Clark his chief of staff). But even if you are skeptical about Humphrey or McGovern, it’s not difficult to see lots of potentially strong Republican presidencies that could have taken his place: George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, Mark Hatfield, or Charles Percy. Nixon does very badly indeed if we evaluate him on my Value-Over-Replacement-Player theory.
Ultimately, the Confucian concept of leadership permeating throughout society wins out. It’s not just that Nixon was an evil, conniving, scheming crook- he made Americans as a whole less generous and tolerant, more intent on viewing the government as a corrupt ‘them’ rather than a collaborative ‘us’. Anyone can be a bad president, but it takes an exceptionally sinister president to dial the entire country’s character down several notches. I have spent countless hours talking about the 1970s with those who were there, and when almost every single one of them still speaks of Watergate, 40 years later, as a deeply traumatic experience, the beginning of their disillusionment with Washington in particular and America in general, we have a problem. Such widespread cynicism and disillusionment should not result in a merely ‘below average’ presidency, where Nixon is usually placed.
Whenever somebody successfully uses racialized code words and gets away with it, the spirit of Nixon is alive. Whenever someone unfriends somebody of a different political affiliation on Facebook, the spirit of Nixon is alive. Whenever we decide its easier to undermine an opponent rather than dialogue with them, the spirit of Nixon is alive. Whether under the guise of Lee Atwater and his turgid revolving door ad, Karl Rove’s villainy, the majority of whites who aren’t troubled by Ferguson, or the Fox viewers who thought Trayvon had it coming, Nixon’s shadow, as David Greenberg calls it, is projected once more upon the American backdrop. Small wonder that Rick Perlstein ends his 700-page tome on Tricky with the depressing conclusion that we are still living in a dystopic and distrustful Nixonland.
And its a shame, because out of all the people he cheated and slandered and lied to, he perhaps cheated no one more than himself. A man of his keen intelligence and memory, his rugged determination to overcome his humble origins and be someone special, his legendary embrace of hard work, and his strong pragmatic streak that belied any steel-cut ideology are all traits that could have lent themselves to considerable success. Nixon, with a functional moral compass and a more noble spirit, might have been a very good president. And that’s that. With #38 out of the way, I regret to say that I don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.