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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Richard Nixon at 100

(AP Photo)
My apologies to our readers for not posting anything in a while. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending between 90 and 95% of my waking hours either studying for the bar exam or searching for a full-time job in the Obama economy. sportsfan is recovering from watching his beloved Fighting Irish get their asses handed to them in the BCS Championship, and the rest of our contributors have various excuses (some very compelling) for not wasting their time on blogging.
Still, I couldn't let such a significant occasion pass without acknowledging the man who would have been 100 years old today.
Perhaps no U.S. president has had a more mixed record than Richard Milhous Nixon. His achievements included re-opening relations with China, France and Egypt, ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam (and the draft), and lowering the federal voting age to 18. But then there were the scandals. Oh, the scandals.
Nixon fit the classic definition of a Greek tragic hero: a great man with a tragic character flaw that brought about his downfall. In his case, it was paranoia. That paranoia drove him to plant listening devices around the White House during his presidency and five members of his re-election campaign to break into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex on an apparently ham-handed investigatory mission. What the White House originally dismissed as a "third-rate burglary" ultimately led to an unprecedented (and, to date, unrepeated) event: our president's term cut short, not by death, but by his own resignation.

The Watergate scandal alone would have been enough to indelibly tarnish Nixon's legacy, but his administration also suffered the taint of corruption from the activities of his vice president, Spiro Agnew, who turned out to have been on the take since his days as Baltimore County Executive. in October of 1973, less than a year prior to Nixon's departure, Agnew pled nolo contendere (no contest) to a charge of federal income tax evasion and resigned his office.

Even as scandal brought down his second-in-command and other scandals threatened to prematurely end his presidency, Nixon never let up in his efforts to further American interests abroad. After making good on his promise to withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam, he met repeatedly with then-Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, their last meeting taking place while former White House counsel and unabashed weasel John Dean was spinning tales as fast as he could to the Watergate Committee in a desperate attempt to save his own skin. Negotiations between the two leaders (known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT) led to the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972.

Per Nixon's directive, the U.S. provided vital support to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He visited Cairo in June of 1974 and agreed to provide Egypt with nuclear technology. Not long after that, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment related to the Watergate cover-up. Before the House of Representatives could vote to impeach him, Nixon released transcripts of tape recordings that implicated him in the cover-up and announced his resignation.

Even after leaving office, he remained an authoritative voice on international affairs. President Clinton even reportedly sought his advice, and the New York Times (which seemed to never have a kind word for Nixon when he was alive) acknowledged, "The former President was always strongest writing about foreign policy." He continued to visit foreign countries and meet with world leaders, and he wrote prolifically. (His memoir RN was okay, but if you really want to get a handle on the man's world view and/or mental processes, then Six Crises and The Real War are both worth a read, and I've read good things about Beyond Peace.)

I can remember learning of his death in 1994. I was in first grade; as I left school, I stood under the flagpole gazing at Old Glory. It's my earliest memory of seeing a flag flown at half-mast.

One day not long after that, while rooting through my parents’ closet looking for a box of monies (you know, like every kid does at one point or another), I found a shoebox full of political memorabilia. My father and grandmother had collected it over the years. There were buttons from every presidential campaign from 1900 to 1972, many of them bearing Nixon’s name. It turns out the '68 campaign was the first one my father had been involved in. He told me how he and his best friend David would stand out in front of my grandmother’s house, near the road, with a big NIXON sign, and passing motorists would honk or smile or shout at them (Every once in a while, someone would stick his head out the window and shout, “Vote for George!”—i.e., George Wallace, the Alabama governor and defender of segregation who ran for president in '68 on a states’ rights platform.) Nixon, of course, won the 1968 election but narrowly lost Texas. We still have the issue of the Star-Telegram from the morning after Election Day with the headline “NIXON IS ELECTED PRESIDENT.”

Dad wasn't the only active Nixon supporter in my lineage. Years before my folks ever met, my other grandmother served as precinct chair for Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972. Like many Nixon supporters, she was bemused by the scandals that unfolded so soon after an incredible victory she and thousands of others had worked fervently to ensure.

"All I got out of it was a red face and a letter from John Wayne," she later told me. (The Duke had supported Nixon in all three of his presidential bids and apparently sent letters to those who worked on the campaign, thanking them for their work.)

As a child, I idolized Nixon. Not because of my family, but because of what I learned about the man through my own research. Certainly, Nixon did a lot of things to warrant admiration, even by those who never knew him personally. His ascendancy to the vice-presidency was one of the fastest in U.S. history; after returning home from World War II, during which he had served in the Navy, Nixon was elected to Congress in 1946. While his role in the Alger Hiss investigation arguably stood out as the most salient highlight of his time in the House of Representatives, he also helped write the Taft-Hartley Act (a.k.a. The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947), which passed over President Truman's veto. During his second term in the House, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. His support for civil rights and opposition to price controls, illegal immigration and public power, along with his erudite speeches warning of the threat of "global Communism" endeared him to many conservatives, and in 1952, the Republican National Convention nominated the 39-year-old freshman senator to run for vice president on the ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower and Nixon won in a landslide--twice--even carrying several states in the "solid South" (including Texas, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia). 
As vice president, Nixon honed his already keen foreign policy credentials, touring dozens of countries and chairing National Security Council meetings in the president's absence. On a trip to Moscow in 1959, he challenged Khrushchev during their infamous "kitchen debate," bluntly telling the Communist leader, "You don't know everything." 
Nixon held the distinction of losing the closest presidential election in U.S. history and winning a presidential election by the biggest landslide in U.S. history. His successful 1968 campaign, waged eight years after a devastatingly close loss to JFK and six years after losing his bid for governor of California, remains one of the great political comebacks of all time. He's the only person to be twice elected vice president and twice elected president of the United States.

My appreciation of his work wasn't ideological, either. Domestically, Nixon could not be called a conservative, not in any sense of the word. He expanded the size of the federal government, signing into law legislation that created, inter alia, the EPA, EEOC, OSHA, CBO and FHLMC (better known as "Freddie Mac"). As part of his "New Federalism" agenda, he proposed a new welfare program that would have guaranteed a minimum payment to all needy American households, regardless of work ethic. He also put in place wage and price controls and took the U.S. off the gold standard. He cut some taxes but raised others, including the capital-gains rate. His administration commenced affirmative action, though arguably at a time when institutional racism was far more widespread in the U.S. than it is today. The federal revenue-sharing program, under which the federal government shares its tax revnues with local governments, also began under Nixon, so every time you see/hear some worthless politician wailing about how spending cuts will mean fewer teachers/police officers/firemen, they're probably lying, but their mendacity is facilitated by one of President Nixon's policies.

His policy mistakes aside, Nixon was a brilliant and hardworking man who made some bad choices. Nothing he is known to have done, however, is/was bad enough to justify ignoring all of his good deeds in damnatio memoriae. Count me as a fan who believes his accomplishments were far greater than his transgressions.

To some, Nixon will always be a villain, but he was certainly a hell of a lot better president than the one we have now.

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