January 9, 2013 was the one hundredth birth anniversary of perhaps the most controversial and misunderstood president in our nation’s history. Two contradictory articles on Richard Nixon on the Fox News web site recently illustrated just how much Americans, those who remember him at least, remain divided on the legacy of this complex man.
The first article's premise
, undoubtedly since it was penned by Democrat strategist Doug Schoen, posits that the moderate Nixon (Schoen actually referred to him as a liberal) would not be welcome in today’s rigid Republican Party. This is because, in Schoen’s view, Nixon’s support for creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and affirmative action programs would make him anathema to today’s “far-right” Republicans that supposedly control the party these days.
To answer Mr. Schoen’s false premise, I would respond by asking a hypothetical centering on the true premise: results. If we could bring Nixon back and ask him, knowing what a regulatory monster the EPA has become, stifling the all-important energy industry in particular, would you still have supported its creation? Or would you have gone for a more temporary solution to fix the obvious pollution problems of that era?
Of course we’ll never know the answer. But hypothetically, if Nixon knew or suspected that the EPA, as most government bureaucracies, would grow and become drunk on its political power, go vastly beyond its original purpose, and still went ahead with it, then Schoen would be right. Nixon would not belong in today’s Republican Party because he would have been thinking like a modern Democrat. In the more optimistic world of the early ‘70’s, it’s hardly assured that even a forward thinker like Nixon could have imagined how powerful the EPA has become, not to mention how far off the original course they have veered. On the other hand, Nixon the politician was shrewd enough to probably suspect what future troubles establishing a permanent agency might cause, but the more important thing at the time was his legacy and what he did to institute a seemingly lasting solution to a vexing problem that may or may not recede in the short run.
Why then would Nixon have supported the expansion of government and its regulatory tentacles? Simplistically, it was a different world then. The acceleration of developing technology was making us think that any problem was solvable if only we put the right quality and quantity of resources into fixing it—after all, we had just put a man on the moon. We were in nowhere near the financial trouble we are now. In fact, we were an industrial juggernaut and were only beginning to experience some of the economic warning signs that perpetually plague us now. Therefore, government expansion, except to the most ardent conservatives of the time, was not seen in anywhere nearly as noxious a light as it is by most conservatives today, and rightly so. Schoen makes no allowance for how vastly the United States has changed and not for the better over the last 40 years, largely as a result of liberal-based programs that exponentially expanded the role and size of government. Another example is abortion. Although Roe V. Wade was a Supreme Court decision, the Chief Justice (Warren Burger) was a Nixon appointee. Again, if Nixon could have foreseen that the first 40 years of this ruling would help produce over 50 million legal abortions in the U.S., do you think with his Quaker beliefs he may have fought it just a bit more?
The second article
, by conservative Fox contributor Monica Crowley, focused on Nixon’s resilience—his ability to time and again bounce back from life’s adversities. Unfortunately, what the article failed to emphasize was how much of the adversity Nixon had brought on himself. Also, in claiming that ultimately Nixon will be not only vindicated by future historians but actually seen as one of the greatest recent presidents, Crowley is engaging in similar hyperbole as Schoen, only in a different direction. If indeed Nixon’s influence helped define the second half of the twentieth century as she claims, and given how events transpired in this country during that time, I don’t necessarily see that as a ringing endorsement for the man’s “greatness.”
The truth about Nixon was that despite his keen political instincts, he was too paranoid to get out in front of the Watergate break-in and manage the public relations fall-out, for whatever reasons known and unknown. Since he failed to do so, the obvious conclusion is that he must have had some venal, hidden purpose for covering up instead of “coming clean.” Some have speculated that there were skeletons in a Bay of Pigs closet that Nixon had no desire to let out. However, it may simply have been his wishful thinking that the “silent majority” he identified in an early presidential speech would come to his rescue and, on the other hand, there was nothing he could do to manipulate his media enemies anyway. They, in his mind (and rightly so to an extent) were out to get him, along with the radical left, because of the audacity he showed in outing Alger Hiss as a communist spy. When one looks at the continued vilification of Joseph McCarthy, it would be negligent to not believe that the same applied to Nixon at least to some degree, and certainly well before Watergate. The irony is that Doug Schoen, forty years on, actually gives Nixon credit for supporting liberal programs when his 1970’s brethren were too busy calling him a war-mongering fascist crook to give him any such credit.
Nixon’s real legacy may be that of a Republican who, like George W. Bush after him, tried to play to both conservatives and liberals and, as a result, ended up pleasing neither. This need not necessarily be a bad thing in all circumstances, but it certainly was in theirs. Both presided over unpopular wars, and neither did a particularly good job overcoming the escalation of anti-war sentiment as the conflicts dragged on. And in both cases, the war overhang served to cripple the president’s perceived effectiveness in other matters. The question for future leaders is this: Do you want to please your constituents or lead them? Nixon’s presidency was a cautionary tale of taking some bold actions (as both Nixon and Bush did) without having the confident demeanor that a true leader possesses to justify such actions and win public approval.