Political Animal


January 09, 2013 10:40 AM The Tricky One at 100

By Ed Kilgore

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon. You will not hear much hagiography—certainly nothing like the shrines being erected and blessed on the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth—and that’s for reasons other than Nixon’s unique status as the only president to resign from office. Even at his peaks of popularity, Nixon never inspired much affection. Most Democrats hated him with an intensity that the similar disdain for George W. Bush never came close to reaching. Republicans, if they loved him at all, loved him for the enemies he made, particularly when he defeated and humiliated them. And nobody has much of an incentive to deal with his policy legacy. Liberals don’t want to give him credit. Honest conservatives ought to view him as one of the architects of the Big Government they deplore:

Many of Nixon’s marquee accomplishments would make today’s Republican rank and file apoplectic. He signed a bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency, proposed universal health care and supported an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. He even imposed wage and price controls.

He also supported a federally guaranteed annual income for all Americans, affirmative action programs, and deliberate use of fiscal policy to goose a struggling economy (“We’re all Keynesians now,” he famously said, echoing an earlier quote from Milton Friedman). He also appointed the author of Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court.

But it’s worth remembering that at the time conservatives were by no means disdainful of Nixon. He was lifted to the vice presidency by Eisenhower in 1952 in part as a more conservative (and younger) ticket-balancer, after he thrilled conservatives with his successful assault on Alger Hiss. He loyally campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964 when many other Republicans ran for cover. By the time of his successful presidential campaign in 1968, he was able to head off a right-wing convention challenge from Ronald Reagan thanks to steady support from southern conservatives like Strom Thurmond. After many of the heresies mentioned above, he drew a conservative primary challenge from John Ashbrook in 1972 (mostly based on unhappiness with Nixon’s strategic arms reduction negotiations with the Soviet Union), but crushed it instantly, even as many conservatives cheered the culture-war he and his vice-president, the soon-to-be-disgraced bribe-taker, Spiro Agnew, were waging against godless liberals and “biased media” and hippies and those people.

Even when he was disgraced and faced impeachment, many conservatives stuck with Nixon, exemplified by Indiana Congressman Earl Langrebe, who memorably said:

Don’t confuse me with the facts. I have a closed mind…. I’m going to stick with my President even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.

So on his would-be 100th birthday everybody should take just a moment to reconsider this repellent but fascinating man’s legacy. If you haven’t read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, you really, really should; after that you might want to take on Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes, which among other things deals with Nixon’s proper place in the ideological firmament.

I know a lot of readers of this blog are old enough to have very sharp memories of the Nixon years. Please feel free to share them in the comment thread, as we give The Tricky One the last word (from his famous 1962 presser after losing the California gubernatorial race):

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on January 09, 2013 10:55 AM:

    I need to go and buy a GPS, to find his grave.

    The morning before I go, I'll eat some fiber cereal with prunes, drink a sixpack of beer, and let him know how I feel about him, and his rancid legacy.

  • jim filyaw on January 09, 2013 10:56 AM:

    althought i hated him at the time, i'd be the first to argue that nixon was a giant compared to the republicans who have followed him (including the great and wonderful gipper himself). same goes for lyndon johnson. vietnam aside, he stands with lincoln and fdr as the three presidents who affected this country for good in ways that all the rest could only dream of. cf. clinton for example. he's now considered great for no more than shielding the country from the worst instincts of the right wingers. i'm beginning to think that kind of 'greatness' is the best obama can hope for.

  • martin on January 09, 2013 11:07 AM:

    God, I remember the loathing. Hard to believe we would end up thinking Clinton and Obama are the best Republican Presidents since Nixon.

    My most fun memory is of Georgetown University's must missed underground radio station WGTB playing Nixon's speeches with Tricky in one channel and a laugh track in the other.

    I spent a whole summer in High School watching the Watergate hearings LIVE on broadcast network television. There's something you will never see again.

  • Patrick Star on January 09, 2013 11:10 AM:

    Yes, I remember Nixon. As much as everyone hated him then (at least, people of my generation at the time), he was quite moderate, governing-wise, by the standards of today's conservative Republicans. But, deep down, Nixon was a classic insecure, paranoid, power-obsessed conservative ratf#cker, and I'm sure he'd be thrilled to see his legacy being carried on by the likes of Karl Rove, Fox News, the Tea Party, etc.

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  • T2 on January 09, 2013 11:24 AM:

    Nixon was a liar, a racist, and yes, a crook. That sounds like a perfect description for most of today's Republican/TeaBaggers. Not so much has changed on that side of the isle. But Nixon wasn't stupid, and that alone separates him from the Bachmann's, Santorum's, Perry's, and assorted others of the ilk that call themselves Republicans today.

  • KK on January 09, 2013 11:25 AM:

    Weened at the apron of the worlds most avid Nixon hater I'd join CUND for a round and head over and let loose on him. While some of his policies seem progressive from here compare them his contemporaries such as LBJ and they are light. Granted, nothing much since until ACA
    Vietnam, awful, Watergmate dispocae and the Father of the Southern strategy, divide and conquer, worst of all. The right wings freak show we see today really is a part of his legacy. I'd urge all to read Nixonland. I was a youngin during those strange times. Nixonland brought those days to life and gave me a better understanding of a deeply complex man, I soon understood my Mothers passionate hatred.

  • KK on January 09, 2013 11:28 AM:

    Weened at the apron of the worlds most avid Nixon hater I'd join CUND for a round and head over and let loose on him. While some of his policies seem progressive from here compare them his contemporaries such as LBJ and they are light. Granted, nothing much since until ACA
    Vietnam, awful, Watergmate dispocae and the Father of the Southern strategy, divide and conquer, worst of all. The right wings freak show we see today really is a part of his legacy. I'd urge all to read Nixonland. I was a youngin during those strange times. Nixonland brought those days to life and gave me a better understanding of a deeply complex man, I soon understood my Mothers passionate hatred.

  • Alan Tomlinson on January 09, 2013 11:31 AM:

    "Liberals donít want to give him credit."

    He was an evil, self-absorbed, fuck. Anyone who can write the above sentence, obviously knows dick about Dick.

    Alan Tomlinson

  • POed Lib on January 09, 2013 11:34 AM:

    I am 60. I am progressive on some issues, moderate or conservative on others. I will never ever become a Repukeliscum. And that is the legacy of Nixon - how ANYONE of my age could consider the Repukeliscum is a total mystery. The enemies list, Liddy and the candle, the violation of law, the creation of the southern strategy, the entire repulsive age of sleaze and scummy politics. I have never voted for a single Repukeliscum and never will, thanks to Nixon. Reagun sealed the deal, and today's scum-tard mixture of guns, stupidity and rancid bible thumping just makes the hatred for Repukeliscum more visceral.

  • hornblower on January 09, 2013 11:42 AM:

    When I was in the Army reserve Nixon activated me for the postal strike. I did three days service and got a year off my commitment. I loved the man except that he was a lowlife, bigoted sob who tried to steal the country out from under us.

  • Mimikatz on January 09, 2013 11:45 AM:

    Another Californian here raised on Nixon's smearing of Jerry Voorhes and Helen Gahaghan Douglas long before he ran for President. He was paranoid and insecure to a frightening degree, but no one could embody the resentments of the lower middle class like Nixon. He was crass and bigotted and nasty. Still, just as we have to condemn LBJ for what he did in Vietnam, we have to recognize that Nixon signed the most far-reaching environmental legislation the country has ever enacted and appointed some really good people to environmental agencies. He was not as closed minded as today's GOPers, something his acolytes never understood. "Nixonland" is a priceless read, not least for showing how much LBJ's quagmire owed to his fear that Nixon would outflank him on the right. Pearlstein quotes material showing that LBJ knew that Vietnam was hopeless even as he escalated and the body count rose because he feared Nixon.

    Those two, Nixon and LBJ, were larger than life, making today's small-minded (in every respect) GOP look even smaller..

  • T2 on January 09, 2013 11:51 AM:

    @hornblower - "tried to steal the country out from under us" - yes, he tried to subvert the election process to ensure his party's victories. And yet, 40+ years later, the Republican Party is actively engaged in the same pursuit though Voter ID scams, Redistricting, pure racially based disenfranchisement, corrupt voting officials, poll place intimidation, Citizens United and other activities. And the reason hasn't changed since Nixon: without manipulation of the vote, Republicans can't win on policy. Nixon knew it, Romney knew it. W. Bush actually did it.

  • Bob O'Reilly on January 09, 2013 12:31 PM:

    Nixon was a criminal and a traitor. He did lots of bad stuff but the worst was using is lackey Kissinger to influence the government of South Vietnam to stonewall the Paris peace talks because he would give them a better deal. Another 25,000 Americans died, uncounted numbers of Vietnamese died and many more people were injured both mentally & physically.

    Ford's pardon was a colossal mistake -- he should been tried and the full extent of his treachery exposed for all to see.

    Disdain is too kind a word to describve my feelings.

  • zandru on January 09, 2013 12:34 PM:

    We get to kick around Dick Nixon some more!

    Well, someone had to say it.

    Although he was often described as "mediocre" and "a second-rate intelligence", Nixon really worked to understand and analyze issues before acting on them. He put in serious study time, according to one biographer, hidden away in one of the nearby office buildings. Nixon forbade the use of that decade's equivalent of Powerpoint presentations to him, because the glitz was typically used to dazzle and prevent reasoned discussion and analysis.

    If he had not exercised that resentful, ideological, vengeance-seeking side of his character, he'd be much more highly regarded now.

  • CT on January 09, 2013 12:34 PM:

    I remember a popular bumper sticker during the 1972 re-election campaign: "Dick Nixon before he dicks you." Whatever progressive legislation he managed to sign (and I give a more progressive and bipartisan Congress most of the credit for that), it doesn't overshadow his core nastiness. He was popular among conservatives largely because he was a parinoid bully, a trait still highly regarded among his modern contemporaries.

  • Speed on January 09, 2013 1:06 PM:

    Remember the Moorer-Radford spy ring and the hardliners in the Pentagon spying on Nixon's secret initiatives with China and USSR. Also read "Secret Agenda" (Hougan) and "Silent Coup" for alternative views on Watergate.

  • rdale on January 09, 2013 1:28 PM:

    I was on a two-week backpacking trip in the High Uintahs Primitive Area while the hearings were going on; my friend's wife was coming to pick us up. She drove up, opened the door, and said "The King is Dead! Long Live the King! Nixon has resigned!" So I missed the whole tawdry exit.

  • Bostonian in Brooklyn o on January 09, 2013 1:38 PM:

    I am the middle of three generations of Nixon haters. My mother despised him because every lawyer that she knew had bought their wives fur coats. (Pre-Peta) I raised my son to hate him and we had warm family moments watching the BBC documentary on Watergate. (It captures the grand personalities but does not acknowledge how much FUN it was.)

    But then came Bush II and I found myself thinking about the ways that Nixon was not THAT bad, not as arrogant, not as entitled, not stupid at all and lots more entertaining.

    I never understood the "like to have a beer with him" saying, Reagan yes, Bush No No NO.

    But then came Romney causing me to remember that Bush II seemed to have a soul, not a great one but better than nothing. More given to sincere self-delusion than instinctive deception.

    Who on earth might come that would lead me to think well of Romney. No one - a worthy successor will have to emerge from hell itself.

  • Rick on January 09, 2013 3:09 PM:

    November, 1968. I was 7, going on 8, in 3rd grade, and crushed by Nixon's election. I'd supported Bobby early on (yes, I paid attention to politics - it was 1968!), but my parents were Nixon haters from way back, having told me all about his yelling "Pink Lady!" at Helen Gahagan Douglas. My mom is doing the laundry. I go over and tell her, "That man is an embarassment to the name Richard and I will not answer to it till he's out of office. From now on, call me Ricky." True story. I dropped the "y" when I went to law school, because I thought a lawyer named Ricky would be as ridiculous as a president named Jimmy.

    My wife's birthday is August 9, the day Nixon's resignation became effective. While courting her, I gave her a framed copy of the NY Times' front page I'd saved from that date in '74, emblazoned "NIXON RESIGNS." It won her over, and still hangs in her office.

    RIH, Dick.

  • jim filyaw on January 09, 2013 3:52 PM:

    reading some of the comments on nixon here and on other blogs is a painful reminder that liberals can be and often are as insufferable and smug as any tea bagger.

  • Doug on January 09, 2013 4:56 PM:

    The question I keep having about Nixon is, why he was so resentful?
    Was it because he wasn't the offspring of an established, and well-heeled, Republican political family, such as Robert Taft? And had to fight his way up? After all, Nixon only managed to get a college education because of various WPA programs put into place to assist poor students.
    Or was it because he wanted to "make it big" in Republican politics and used the exact same methods as today's Tbaggers? And then wondered why those same establishment types STILL didn't like him? I know that Eisenhower wasn't thrilled with Nixon being his VP for exactly those reasons.
    But 1952 would be a tad late for such resentment to originate, wouldn't it? And if Nixon WAS that resentful from his youth, why didn't he channel it into something better? As it is, he appears to be something not unlike the right-wing reverse of the coin to LBJ's (sort of) left-wing obverse of the same coin.
    His dealings with the SV government prior to his Inaugeration certainly broke the law. His so-called "Victory" plan was nothing more than LBJ's on steroids. I'm sorry to say I don't know how many of Nixon's domestic "accomplishments" were due to him and policies he truly believed in or to recognizing SOMETHING was going to be done, so he might as well get in front. If nothing else, his legacy to this country of those who worked in his administrations is enough to blacken the name of someone who was trying to do good; something I'm not at all certain about when applied to the actions of RMN.
    I'll have to read Wills' and Perlstein's books, but until then my view is that much of what Nixon did, and for which he is reviled, was entirely voluntary on his part.

  • C. P. Zilliacus on January 09, 2013 7:32 PM:

    Like one of the above posters, I am just old enough to remember Nixon's campaign and election in 1968 - and I was already interested enough in politics to have a passionate dislike of him even then.

    A few people I know and respect claimed that (dovish) supporters of Sen. Eugene McCarthy urged people that might have voted for Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968 to "stay home" on election day (though I don't know if that mattered the way that Ralph Nader's candidacy in 2000 helped to deliver Florida and the White House to George W. Bush).

  • CATMAN on January 09, 2013 8:53 PM:

    I remember when his coffin was on display at the Nixon Library--I wanted to stand in line just so I could say
    "I'm here to make sure that son of a bitch is really dead!"
    The thought of depositing a large pile of human excreta on his grave makes me smile

  • Don K on January 09, 2013 9:49 PM:

    Ahhh... Nixon. I remember the day after the '68 election, when the networks finally decided he had won Ohio and, therefore, the presidency. The PA announcement at my junior high was made while we 9th graders were in an assembly. In our middle-to-upper-middle class (at the time) very Republican town, the response from the kids was a smattering of cheers and a chorus of boos.

    Then I remember the joy of witnessing his resignation. The father of my college roommate broke out the scotch that night, and my roomie and I smoked copious amounts of weed as well to toast the occasion.

    Finally, there's George W. The one thing I really couldn't forgive him for was that he was so bad he made me pine for the good old days of Dick Nixon.

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