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When the Nixon presidency went down in flames it unfortunately took a chunk of conservative legitimacy with it. First, Nixon's early anti-Communist credentials had made him seem a conservative for his whole career, though he seldom was one. Second, from the Hiss case to the Checkers affair to Vietnam to Watergate, Richard Nixon's foremost enemies were the politicians, activists, intellectuals, academics, magazines, and newspapers of the establishment Left. In the Middle East there's a saying : the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Operating under this theory, conservatives embraced Nixon, largely because the Left hated him so, and as the attacks on him grew ever fiercer, their embrace grew tighter. But then the final Watergate revelations came and the Right realized that Nixon had been lying even to them, and so the long, unrequited, love between them and him died.
One would have assumed that this would leave Nixon in a uniquely exposed position in the ensuing years, as the biographies, histories, and reassessments of his Presidency tumbled forth. Typically, the professional intellectual class seeks to restore some luster to discredited Democrats after they leave office (Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter), while either ignoring or diminishing Republicans (Coolidge, Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush). But the exact opposite has happened in this case, and, paradoxically, it proves the point. For the final dirty secret of Tricky Dick is that he was the last great liberal President.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt bequeathed the country two major issues : (1) what to do about the enormous expansion of government regulation, programs, spending and taxation that he began under the New Deal; (2) what to do about the Soviet Union, the totalitarian regime to which he had yoked our fortunes during WWII, in order to defeat a different set of thugs. Until Ronald Reagan, none of his successors seriously challenged the concept of the monolithic Social Welfare State. And, though Eisenhower sought to turn down the heat, FDR's successors generally maintained a posture of ongoing confrontation with the Soviet Union, that is until Nixon and Kissinger took office. Their policy of détente, premised on the belief that the USSR had achieved rough parity with the US in technological/military/geopolitical terms, was the first major attempt to work out a means of peaceful coexistence, perhaps even some rough cooperation. As part of this grand strategy, Nixon proceeded to take us out of Vietnam, negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviets, and worked out a rapprochement with the Chinese. In retrospect, this president who not only didn't seek to roll back government but actually introduced new social programs, and who was even willing to accept arms agreements that were advantageous to the Russians, must be seen as the most liberal of the post-FDR presidents.
Tom Wicker, whose career as reporter, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, and then columnist overlapped Nixon's political career, has thus written a book which though awfully weak as biography (for a great one see : Richard Milhous Nixon : The Rise of an American Politician by Roger Morris) has some interest as a kind of weird rehabilitative essay. His quest requires him to minimize Nixon's truly reprehensible behavior as President. Granted Nixon came from a generation of politicians who felt no compunction about using dirty tricks, wire tapping, breaking and entering, and the like--as his congressional contemporaries JFK and LBJ did--but that can not possibly excuse these activities on his part. Instead, it indicts them. To his credit, Wicker does acknowledge that the growing centralization of power in the hands of the Federal government created a situation in which corruption was inevitable.
Meanwhile, Wicker also betrays rather extensive squeamishness about some of the particulars of Nixon's foreign policy. He argues that Nixon should have gotten out of Vietnam much quicker, should have ditched the Shah of Iran and shouldn't have tilted towards Pakistan during its dispute with India. He bemoans our involvement in the toppling of Salvador Allende in Chile. And he thinks the pace of negotiation with the Soviets should have been quicker. The general case here seems to be that Nixon was okay on the big stuff, thawing out the Cold War, but not quite good enough. That's fairly timid criticism.
It is only on domestic policy that Wicker is completely enamored. He goes so far as to adopt Daniel Patrick Moynihan's assessment that the Nixon Administration was "'the most progressive' of the postwar era." In particular, he likes the way that Nixon used his powers to desegregate Southern schools.
In the end, the quality that Wicker seems to admire most in Nixon is, appropriately enough, the same one that people admire in Bill Clinton : the awesome capacity to sustain political damage and live to fight another day. Perhaps even more tellingly, the other aspect of Nixon's character that Wicker admires is that for all the skirting of rules and outright illegalities, at the two times in his life when it mattered most, Nixon put what he perceived of as the interests of the country ahead of his personal interests--when he chose not to challenge the 1960 election results in Illinois and Texas and when he turned over the Watergate tapes. For all his fundamental indecency, a tiny flame still flickered within Richard Nixon, a capacity to do the honorable thing. He is fortunate to have been followed by Clinton, whose utter inability to do the same, actually makes Nixon look good by comparison.
There's also some especially unfortunate blather here, best illustrated by a quote from Henry Kissinger :
Can you imagine what this man would have been had somebody loved him?
where Wicker tries to psychoanalyze Nixon, particularly his paranoia and his willingness to cut ethical corners. Since the book is really more of an essay than a biography, this exercise might have had some limited value had Wicker discussed why it was that people of his ilk, Eastern journalists, had such a hard time loving Nixon. The mere suppositions about the demons that drove Nixon don't have much value on their own.
Ultimately, the Nixon who emerges despite Tom Wicker's best efforts in this overly generous portrait turns out not just to have been one of the worst men ever to be president, but also one of the worst presidents in policy terms. The Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and now Bush presidencies have all been about undoing the legacy of Richard Nixon and the other big government liberals, while Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by turning Nixonian foreign policy on its head. Instead of accepting the Soviet Union as a legitimate and eternal competitor, Reagan intuited that by applying pressure we could expose the systemic weaknesses of the Communist system. Where Nixon offered them a respite from the arms race, Reagan challenged them to keep up. History has rendered a very clear verdict as to who was right.
But neither the domestic nor the foreign policy failures of the Nixon presidency are as significant as his deleterious impact on American institutions. Wicker is absolutely correct, though it's hard to believe he's thought out the implications, that the sheer size and inordinate power of the Cold War presidency and government made corruption and scandal inevitable. The Nixon presidency was one long object lesson in the dangers of granting such power to the government. But the manner in which Nixon personally corrupted the Presidency is unforgivable. No president can possibly oversee a bureaucracy as vast as the one we've built up, so the excesses of subordinates can often be forgiven. But where, as in the Nixon presidency (or the Clinton presidency, for that matter), the President himself helps foster a climate of criminality, then he must bear great responsibility for their actions. Arguments over who did what and what the President knew about Watergate are therefore interesting, but immaterial.
The presidency of Richard Nixon was a moral blight upon the nation, one which he only partly expunged by resigning. That he governed from the Left and that he looks halfway decent in comparison to Bill Clinton can in no way excuse his actions. It is perhaps the perfect punishment that Nixon has no one left to defend him now except for the same liberals who were his lifelong enemies. One imagines Richard Nixon spinning in his grave at the very thought of a NY Times columnist penning a 700 page apologia for his life and works, and one smiles.
-BOOKNOTES : Author: Tom Wicker Title: One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream Air Date: April 7, 1991(C-SPAN)
-ESSAY : Richard Nixon (Tom Wicker, Character Above All, PBS)
-ESSAY : WHY, MISS SCARLETT, HOW WELL YOU'VE AGED (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review, May 25, 1986)
-OPED : IN THE NATION; Rushdie and Others (Tom Wicker, NY Times)
-OPED : IN THE NATION; Islam and the West (Tom Wicker, NY Times)
-OPED : IN THE NATION; A RED-FACED REVIEW (Tom Wicker, NY Times)
-OPED : IN THE NATION; WHAT THE BRETHREN ATE (Tom Wicker, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of DREAM CITY Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. By Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood.(Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of TWO NATIONS Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. By Andrew Hacker (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of A PROPHET WITH HONOR The Billy Graham Story. By William Martin (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of GEORGE B. McCLELLAN The Young Napoleon. By Stephen W. Sears (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of HOME FIRES BURNING By Robert Inman (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE END OF AN ERA : Volume Six of The Image of War 1861-1865. Edited by William C. Davis (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE CROCODILE MAN A Case of Brain Chemistry and Criminal Violence. By Andre Mayer and Michael Wheeler (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of A REPORTER'S LIFE By Walter Cronkite (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of ACTIVE FAITH How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics. By Ralph Reed (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of A VERY THIN LINE The Iran-Contra Affairs. By Theodore Draper (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE LAST REVIEW The Confederate Reunion, Richmond, 1932. By Virginius Dabney (Tom Wicker, NY Times Book Review)
: of One of Us Richard Nixon and the American Dream By Tom Wicker (Roger
Morris, NY Times)