August 9, 2010
When Richard Nixon became the only president in our history to resign his office, 36 years ago today, there were many analyses of the Watergate crisis that led immediately to his ouster from office. Of course, the readiness of the House of Representatives to vote yes on articles of impeachment was the reason Nixon had to go.
Nixon had for several years been alienating large parts of his political base. When he got into deep trouble over Watergate, very few politicians in his party were willing to step forward to defend him. Unlike Bill Clinton twenty-five years later, Nixon the loner had no one to run interference for him.
First, Nixon had offended the economic conservatives. We are all Keynesians now, Nixon announced to the horror of all those who had read F.A. Hayeks classic work, The Road to Serfdom. Nixon tried to deal with rampant inflation by instituting a wage-price freeze. It was a disastrous failure—as all such moves have been, as ObamaCare will be.
Second, defense conservatives were Nixons lifetime base. He had built his career on anti-Communism. He was always more an anti-Communist crusader than he was a conservative.
And, he kept his word about Vietnamizing the conflict in Southeast Asia. In the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon promised to pull U.S. ground troops out of South Vietnam, to get our POWs out of prison in Hanoi, and not to lose South Vietnam to the Communist invaders of North Vietnam.
When Nixon took the oath as President of the United States on January 20, 1969, there were more than 500,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam. Casualties in 1968—that annus horriblis—had risen as high as 300 dead a week. By the time Nixon was sworn in for his second term—January 20, 1973—there were only 25,000 U.S. troops on the ground, the POWs had come home, and the shaky peace accords with Communist North Vietnam were holding. U.S. aid to South Vietnam and our continuing military control of the air and the sea helped shore up a fragile peace.
Despite these great achievements, Nixon betrayed our alliance with Taiwan by going to Beijing and toasting Mao Zedong, the mass murderer of millions of Chinese. Anti-Communist conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr., were depressed by Nixons realpolitik. It seemed so devoid of principle—because it was. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later wrote in his memoirs that no ally ever deserved Americas ingratitude less than loyal Taiwan, but he had to do it. No he didnt, said the defense conservatives. And they challenged Kissingers amoral world view. What, exactly did the U.S. get from its alliance of convenience with Communist China?
Finally, the social conservatives were dropped by Richard Nixon. He said he was anti-abortion.
But three of his four appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court voted for the radical Roe v. Wade ruling of January 22, 1973, and his nominee, Harry Blackmun, actually wrote it. Nixon had previously appointed a Presidential Commission on Population, chaired by a Rockefeller, which recommended liberalizing abortion laws and putting the weight of the U.S. government behind population control efforts here. Nixon rejected abortion, or so he said, but he signed the Family Planning and Reproductive Health Act of 1970. That subversive law continues to fund Planned Parenthood activities around the country to this day.
(When President Eisenhower, under whom Nixon served as vice president, was asked in 1959 if he believed the federal government should set up so-called family planning centers throughout the country, Ike memorably replied he could not think of an activity more inappropriate for the federal government!)
Nixon also named a pornography commission. Its liberal membership assured its conclusions: Pornography is no big deal. Many of those returning POWs—all of whom were men who had been around Navy ships and Air Force squadrons—said they were shocked to find the America of 1973 awash in pornography. This, too, must be a part of Nixons checkered legacy.
Perhaps the worst thing for Richard Nixon came when his embattled legal defense team released hundreds of hours of expurgated White House tapes. Nixon was certainly not the first president to tape conversations in the White House. FDR and JFK were said to have taped, but selectively. We have long, damaging tapes from the LBJ White House that show him to have been a wheeler-dealer of the first order.
But Nixon taped everything. And his people had to go through and cut out all of the gutter language he used regularly. Americans—especially Nixons church-going voters in the South and Midwest—were horrified to find every other line contained the damaging words [expletive deleted]. JFK used locker room language, but never pretended anything else. He kept his public comments chaste. Eisenhower, it was said, could turn the air blue with barracks denunciations of shoddy staff work. But Ike was careful in public never to cross the lines of propriety.
Those tapes that were released a full year before Nixon was finally driven from office destroyed him with his own base. He was revealed as a foul-mouthed and small-minded man. For one who had genuine intellect and who worked harder than anyone else to get to the White House, it was a tragic loss.
This fall, many campaigners will try to don the mantle of FDR or JFK. No Democrats will claim Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter as their models. Many a Republican will try to appropriate the Reagan magic. But nobody will promise to return us to the good old days of Richard Milhous Nixon.