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July 15, 2013 3:23 PM Anniversary of a Diplomatic Coup—And a Meme

By Ed Kilgore

In addition to the Goldwater nomination in 1964, this day also marked Richard M. Nixon’s surprise announcement in 1971 that he would be making a trip to the People’s Republic of China.

Aside from representing a very important event in diplomatic history (and a major twist in the Cold War), Nixon’s speech birthed a meme. Nixon-goes-to-China would soon represent shorthand for the theory that only politicians acting against type were capable of achieving big bipartisan policy breakthroughs. It was later applied to Ronald Reagan’s brief and unsuccessful espousal of a “zero option” in strategic arms negotiations with the Soviet Union; Bill Clinton working with Republicans on welfare reform and a balanced federal budget; and George W. Bush expanding Medicare and supporting an anti-AIDS initiative in Africa, among other events. In this hyper-polarized era, there are few if any occasions for using the term, though some have tentatively applied it to Obama’s offer of “entitlement reform” concessions or to Marco Rubio’s leadership on comprehensive immigration reform, neither of which has worked out real well.

Nixon, of course, pulled a number of shockers on his conservative “base” supporters, including wage and price controls (implemented with mixed results) and a guaranteed minimum income (unsuccessful, though without missing a beat Nixon’s 1972 campaign savaged George McGovern for embracing the same basic idea). By such means did he richly earn the “Tricky Dick” appellation, before giving us the mother of all memes, the (fill-in-the-blank)-gate.

I distinctly remember, though I cannot find a link for, a National Review reaction to one or more of Nixon’s surprises, which included a ditty to the tune of White Christmas that concluded:

I’m dreaming I am Disraeli
Watching constituents turn white.
May your TV picture be bright
I’ll be in your living room tonight.

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.

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