It’s been forty years since Richard Nixon’s obsession with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers backfired and led to the 1971 landmark First Amendment Decision, i.e., New York Times v. United States. The ruling made it possible for newspapers to publish the then-classified Pentagon Papers without risk of government sanction.
For a man “kicked around by the media,” Mr. Nixon actually opened doors for investigative journalism as a result of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
Nixon may in fact be the last president that created big-government, New Deal programming, implemented an aggressive interventionist foreign policy, and gave birth to an activist judicial bench.
By any contemporary measure of Republicanism spewed by the seven ideological dwarfs – Michelle Bachman, Glen Beck, Mike Huckabee Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump – Richard Nixon was a flaming liberal.
In modern day parlance, Mr. Nixon would be labeled a baby-killing RINO who spared Charles Manson’s life and promoted the Nanny-state.
The contemporary reality is that Richard Millhouse Nixon would not be welcome in today’s Republican Party, which more resembles George Wallace’s American Independent Party of 1968.
Nixon was not a moral statue. He was a varsity political warlord.
Nixon’s paranoia and vindictiveness – sprinkled with late-night highballs – certainly drove the man to make bad decisions. He was a flawed human being. Nobody ever came away from a close encounter with 37th the president – who happened to be a Quaker – feeling warm and fuzzy.
Nixon’s Southern strategy – which continues to haunt the Dixiecrats was built on race-baiting. His anti-Semitic remarks were vulgar. And “The Plumbers,” domestic spying, and the “Saturday Night Massacre” were an affront to the Constitution.
Mr. Nixon and not Ronald Reagan – for all of his faults and foibles – created, prodded and unveiled initiatives that changed the face of the world and ushered in an end to the Cold War.
Look, I still don’t like the guy, but I would vote for him in the 2012 Republican primary.
If we are judging POTUSes based on ethics, clean living, transparency, and other admirable middle-class ethos – Mr. Nixon like Mr. Kennedy – would not be inducted into the Presidential Morality Hall of Fame. Those slots are reserved for moral titans of accomplishment like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.
We elect politicians, not saints. Realpolitik has real consequences.
Results-based foreign policy is a messy business and forged out of flexible principals. Leonid Brezhnev, Augusto Pinochet and Nguyen Van Thieu may seem like an incongruent American foreign policy, but to Nixon and Kissinger’s paradigm of linkage and state craft, they were an acceptable tradeoff for containment and domino triage.
While street warfare and internal dissension ripped America apart during Nixon’s tenure, there was also a confluence of bipartisan legislative accomplishments that dramatically altered the way our society functions.
If Gerald Ford could make the courageous but necessary decision of pardoning Nixon, then I must put aside my strong distaste for Tricky Dick and examine his accomplishments.
I cannot be blinded by my Vietnam-Watergate Era haze that led me to oppose anything with a Nixon logo on it. History provides us with a filter to look at Mr. Nixon’s administration. While I am not a Nixon apologist, I am required to confront the evidence on the ground.
Sadly, Nixon’s landmark achievements and initiatives would be viewed as appeasement, creeping socialism, judicial activism, regulatory overkill, and overt tree-hugging by today’s “real Republicans.”
Nixon’s breakthrough trip to China on February 21-28, 1972, would likely be covered by Fox News as a bookend to Munich 1938. This monumental diplomatic step led to the normalization of relations with world’s most populous nation.
At the time of the trip, bipolarity dominated the the world stage. Nixon’s dramatic plunge led the Soviet Union to divert resources, scramble diplomats, and redeploy forces which exasperated a Cold War in Sino-Russo relations.
It took a McCarthyite to get the United Nations to recognize Red China – and not an island in the Strait of Formosa – as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people on November 23, 1971. Nixon met with Mao and Zhou Enlai, visited the Great Wall, and toasted the Communists without puking on anyone’s lap.
Then Nixon double-crossed the isolationists, engaged the Soviet Union in détente, and produced three stunning foreign policy achievements in 1972: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Biological Weapons Convention, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks 1.
Nixon did all this without mispronouncing nuclear. He could not see Russia from his backyard in San Clemente. Rather, Nixon saw an opportunity, seized it, and changed the world’s political axis.
Mr. Nixon’s stab to the left was punctuated on August 15, 1971 when he unilaterally imposed Wage and Price Controls, torpedoed the Gold Standard Act and imposed a 10% import surcharge.
The three month freeze was an unprecedented peacetime measure designed to defeat an annual inflation rate of 4% to 6% in 1970-1971. The diktat proved to be popular in the Homeland. Voters viewed the measures as diplomatic protectionism designed to insulate America from foreign predators.
The “Nixon Shock” stunned the world’s financial brokers and solidified his domestic coalition. The measures today would be viewed as federalist mission creep and open-war on free trade agreements.
These were incongruent policies to combat inflation. Nixon’s support for cost of living adjustments for Social Security recipients together with his wild spending on human services would make Dennis Kucinich envious. Nixon historian Joan Hoff pointed out in Reevaluating Richard Nixon: His Domestic Achievements:
“From the first to the last budget for which the Nixon administration was responsible; that is, from 1970 through 1975 spending on all human resource programs exceeded spending for defense for the first time since the Second World War. Funding for social welfare services under Nixon grew from $55 billion in 1970 to almost $132 billion in 1975 making him (not President Johnson) the “last of the big spenders” on domestic programs. This represented an increase from 28% of all federal outlays to 40.4%, compared to a decrease in defense spending in the same period from 40% of all federal outlays (or $78.6 billion) to 26.2% (or $85.6 billion).”
Of course these accomplishments would be a footnote if Nixon had succeeded in passing radical health care reform. It was Nixon who announced on February 6, 1974: “Comprehensive health insurance is an idea whose time has come in America…There has long been a need to assure every American financial access to high quality health care. As medical costs go up, that need grows more pressing….Indeed, let us act sensibly. And let us act now–in 1974–to assure all Americans financial access to high quality medical care.”
Sounds like an Obama stump speech from 2008, huh?
Mr. Nixon campaigned as a strict constructionist intensely aware that he didn’t want to repeat the Warren mistake. Mr. Law and Order made four appointments to the Supreme Court in three years: Warren Burger (1969) and Harry Blackmun (1971) referred to as the “Minnesota Twins”, Lewis Powell (1971), and William Rehnquist (1971). He also appointed Robert Bork Solicitor General in 1973.
Nixon pulled off the strategic judicial miracle of pleasing feminists and sparing the Manson Family.
Although Nixon supported Strom Thurmond and the Dixicecrats, the Burger Court ended southern educational segregation in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969). The decision infuriated southern whites who supported Nixon, and prompted George Wallace to decry the Burger Court as an extension oft of Warren interventionism and called the justices “limousine hypocrites.”
And, contrary to Nixon’s Southern strategy, the Court supported busing to combat racial segregation in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971).
The following year the Court outlawed capital punishment in Furman v. Georgia (1972) over the dissent of three Nixon appointees. Now I’m not saying that Nixon is a dues-paying member of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, but his Court did kill the measure and introduce “compassionate conservatism.”
It was the Nixon Court that legalized abortion. It was his appointee Harry Blackmun who authored Roe v. Wade (1973). Blackmun, a lifelong Republican stated, “Few decisions are more personal and intimate, more properly private, or more basic to individual dignity and autonomy, than a woman’s decision – with the guidance of her physician and within the limits specified in Roe – whether to end her pregnancy. A woman’s right to make that choice freely is fundamental.”
I can’t imagine Dick Nixon giving the commencement speech at Bob Jones University or rushing to Terry Schiavo’s bedside.
Nixon was profoundly impacted by the sights, sounds, and odors of the oil spill that tarred the coast of Santa Barbara following an offshore platform blowout on January 28, 1969. That’s right, Santa Barbara came before the Exxon Valdez (1989), and four-decades before Obama threatened to hold BP accountable for the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010.
Nixon – not Carter – was responsible for creating the environmental Leviathan that suppresses economic growth, harasses business, and enforces clear air and water standards. To be fair, he was not in love with the idea of the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. He was prodded to do the right thing by historic villains in the “Five O’Clock Group.”
On December 31, 1970, Richard Nixon described the genesis of the EPA and the secret to passing a bill. “How did this come about? It came about by the President proposing. It came about by a bipartisan effort represented by the Senators and Congressmen, who are here today, in acting. Senator Randolph, Senator Cooper, and Congressman Springer represent both parties and both Houses of the Congress.
Nixon also created the Council on Environmental Quality (1970), signed the US Clean Air Act into law (1970), established Earth Week (1971), vetoed the Clean Water Act in 1972 (which was overridden), and supported the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Waster and Other Matter (1973).
Mr. Nixon was hardly a proponent of consumer rights, yet he followed-up on LBJ’s fire safety initiatives in 1971 by appointing a Commission to study fire hazards. The Commission published “America Burning” on May 4, 1973 which contained the grim conclusion that America had one of the highest fire death rates in the industrialized world.
As a result, Congress enacted the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, and created the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration. Yup, Nixon created another unnecessary federal agency. What’s worse, he also supported legislation regulating noise pollution.
Clearly Nixon would not be supported by today’s home builders.
Perhaps Nixon’s legacy is more of a statement on the modern-day Republican Party and the decay of political skill sets. Back in the day there were oodles of scandals and age-old distractions, but Nixon was able to craft legislation with Mike Mansfield and Wilbur Mills, partner with William Fulbright on détente, and collaborate with Goldwater, Scranton and Rockefeller Republicans.
Valuable lessons lost on the new crop of Republican standard-bearers who seem preoccupied with birth certificates, death panels, and polling for dollars.
Yeah, Nixon was weird, paranoid, and unscrupulous. He hated John Lennon, bonded with Elvis, hugged Sammy Davis, Jr., didn’t trust Kissinger or the liberal media, spied on his enemies, “socked it” to Hollywood, and hung out on a boat with a guy named Bebe.
He could be a creepy dude, but his back channel messages dealt with secret peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. I can’t imagine anyone receiving a text of Nixon’s crotch without losing a retina.
Nixon was also a blue-collar, working class politician from humble beginnings who was faithful to his wife, and didn’t drink port on a yacht stashed in Cape Cod. He practiced law successfully in New York. Bottom line post 1960: He didn’t need a government job.
So if you can get past the caricatures, “five o’clock shadow,” and personality flaws (it only took me thirty years), it’s clear that Nixon established a formidable record as president that eclipses other former presidents from California.
Today Nixon couldn’t fit under the Republican pup tent. He would not pass the Tea Party’s litmus test. The 2012 Republican bus tour would run Nixon out of town and put him in the historical storage closet with other liberal and moderate Republicans.
Nixon was a pragmatic moderate with a nasty political overbite. His day is history. Yet, if Nixon were alive, he would dwarf the merry brand of pretenders and likely be derided as the third senator from Maine.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, and let’s be clear, I am a Truman guy. But I miss Ike, Rockefeller, and Gerald and Betty Ford.
Truth be told, Richard Nixon was the last liberal president.
Photo by Gary Denham