Much is being written this week and weekend about the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, the nation’s 37th president (36th if you count Grover Cleveland’s split administrations as one president instead of two). The cause for all the ink is the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, and much of what you’ll be reading is about the stain on his presidency that he caused by participating in and largely directing the cover-up of the Watergate burglary that occurred in June of 1972.
My purpose here is not to relate the details of that high crime (one that most certainly would have led to Nixon’s impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate had he not resigned, which, of course, is why he did). While the history of that summer (and the one preceding it that was marked by the Senate hearings chaired by Sam Ervin) is fascinating to study (and even more fascinating to have lived through), it overshadows the five-and-a-half years of Nixon’s presidency, leaving his record largely forgotten, or at least insufficiently understood.
So let’s go back to the campaign of 1968 when Nixon won a tight race against Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat’s nominee. (George Wallace, the Alabama governor, ran a third-party campaign and siphoned off five Southern states that might have tipped the election to the Democrats.) Nixon had lost an even tighter race for the office (to John F. Kennedy) eight years earlier and had also lost a bid for California’s governorship in 1962 (thereafter swearing off electoral politics in his “last press conference”).
Nixon was driven to be remembered as a great president. Psychologists would probably say that he suffered from a mammoth inferiority complex which he compensated for by being suspicious and paranoid of those who opposed him. The development of an extensive list of political “enemies” during his presidency was undoubtedly caused by this aspect of his hubris.
He campaigned as a faux peace candidate in ’68, claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the dreaded war in Vietnam. Whether he had such a plan at the time is still anyone’s guess. As it turned out, he did institute a plan of sorts after he assumed the presidency. Calling it “Vietnamization,” he commenced a gradual withdrawal of American forces in the country from the high of 550,000 troops in early 1969 to the eventual pull-out (marked by a peace treaty with the North) in 1973. (The South ultimately fell to the North in 1975.)
For the four years that he continued to prosecute the war, however, Nixon was anything but a peaceful president. He escalated the war far beyond anything Lyndon Johnson had sanctioned, by bombing Hanoi (the North Vietnamese capital), mining the Haiphong harbor (the main port for supplying the North with munitions), invading neighboring Cambodia and Laos (in both instances to destroy Viet Cong sanctuaries), and otherwise seeking to destroy the North’s will to fight by increasing search and destroy missions and increasing body counts.
In the end, the hatred that had been leveled at LBJ by the American peace movement was visited on Nixon with even greater force and fury. But Nixon was nothing if not a skilled politician, and at the same time that he was being vilified by the long-haired hippies on the left who preached a revolution, he portrayed himself as the leader of the “great silent majority,” whom he identified as the true patriots who love their country and trust its president.
He won a landslide re-election in 1972, losing only one state to the hapless Democrat, George McGovern, and in doing so, he established the GOP’s “Southern Strategy,” which led to the election of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and which now has pushed the Republican Party farther to the right than Nixon himself would have ever envisioned.
What must be understood, for any of this account to make sense, is that in today’s political terminology, Richard Nixon was a moderate. In fact, it is highly unlikely that today he would be able to even withstand a primary election as a Republican in most of the country’s states. He was, after all, apart from his hawkish prosecution of the war in Vietnam, very much a conciliator with the Communist governments in both the Soviet Union and China. He was the first president to visit China, meeting with Mao Zedung and Zhou Enlai, even attending a Chinese opera and proposing toasts to Zhou.
It is said that no Democrat could have opened the relationship with China (or achieved the rapprochement with the Soviets), and that is probably true, especially with the Democrats having been labeled as “soft on Communism” by virtue of McGovern’s campaign and the takeover of the party by the far left. But Nixon deserves credit for having the courage and foresight to move American foreign policy away from the brinksmanship and threat of nuclear war that had marked our nation’s existence for the previous quarter century.
Nixon also deserves credit for his use of the presidency to thwart runaway inflation (by imposing wage and price controls, absolute economic heresy for any legitimate Republican then and now) and for signing into law the Clean Air Act and creating the federal bureaucracy of the Environmental Protection Agency that is absolutely despised today by hard core Republicans. He also supported the establishment of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the requirement of environmental impact reports for federal projects (also anathema to today’s GOP).
And, if you can believe it, he proposed and sought health insurance reform in the form of a private health insurance employer mandate that is not altogether unlike what we today call Obamacare.
On balance, Nixon’s presidency was right of center, but not nearly as far to the right as Ronald Reagan took the country a decade later. He was overly aggressive on Vietnam, to be sure, but he also opened avenues to peace with China and the Soviet Union (perhaps even paving the way for Gorbachev’s ascendency).
Watergate will forever mark his presidency as a failure, but it isn’t the whole story.