Thursday night, on the radio, I listened to a round-table of pundits assessing the career of Richard Nixon. There was also a phone call from a woman who, almost in tears, berated the panel members for speaking negatively about Nixon “while he lays on his death bed!” I knew then that Mr. Nixon was not long for this world and that soon the empathy that comes with the passing of any human life would spawn a whole slew of sympathetic eulogies for our former president. While I am not one to act vindictively, I feel that at this juncture we must remind ourselves of what Mr. Nixon’s real legacy was.
Before we eulogize him, we should remember that Richard Milhous Nixon started his career in public life as a Red-Baiter, a character assassin, and demagogue. He was of the same ilk as Joe McCarthy, Martin Dies, and Roy Cohn. Let us not forget that their cheap grandstanding, fishing expeditions, and guilt-by-association destroyed reputations, careers, and lives. That Nixon’s wanton destruction of Alger Hiss set the tone for the arbitrary dismissal of thousands of teachers, professors, and loyal government employees who’s only crime was to have taken the first amendment at face value and expressed an opinion that was too pink for the current fashion. That America in the 1950’s lived under a dark cloud of loyalty oaths, black lists, and enforced conformism was, in some small part, due to Richard Milhous Nixon.
Those who would eulogize Nixon often talk about his “achievements” in foreign policy. After all, they would say, he opened up diplomatic relations with China, only twenty years after making political hay by accusing the Truman administration of “loosing” China. He sold tons and tons of wheat to the Soviet Union and thus propped-up the failing economy of our supposed enemy while simultaneously bailing-out the ruinous “hedge-row to hedge-row” polices of agricultural secretary Earl Butz. All the while he kept a hard-line on communism though! He strictly enforced our blockade on tiny Cuba, and supported courageous anti-communists like Franco and Somoza. But, they often say, his real achievement was that he “lessened the tensions” of the Cold War and brought on a period of “detente.”
But tell me: why should we give Nixon any credit for lessening the tensions of the Cold War, when he was one of the saber-rattling demagogues who started the Cold War?
And what about Vietnam? Nixon said he had a “secret plan” to end the war, but then he prolonged it for five years, thus delaying the inevitable at a cost of some 20,000 American lives. He lied to Congress and the American people by ordering 3,500 secret bombing missions over Cambodia. He then went on to break international law by invading not only Cambodia, but Laos as well. His invasion of Cambodia turned a stable, neutral country into a war zone and paved the way for Pol Pot. In order to justify our continued involvement with a corrupt South Vietnamese government and a losing war, he created the myth of unaccounted for M.I.A.’s and P.O.W.’s; an insidious lie that has become part of our national folklore. Rather than admit that Vietnam was a strategic defeat for the United States, Nixon perpetuated the myth that America was never beaten in Vietnam, rather, we were stabbed-in-the-back by dissenters at home; just as the Nazi would have you believe that Germany lost W.W.I because she was stabbed-in-the-back by Jews and bankers. The lies, distortions, and deceptions of Nixon’s Vietnam policy almost insure that America will be irreparably divided on this issue for a generation or more.
But let us suppose that the five extra years of fighting did improve our bargaining position, the South fell just as the Pentagon Papers said it would. But those were real boys fighting for those five years, and now some of them are really dead.
Shall we eulogize Nixon for his domestic achievements? Like domestic spying and counter-intelligence operations? Let me recall for you that it was Nixon’s jimmying with wage/price controls, tax cuts, and the money supply in 1971, that led to a false prosperity just in time for the ’72 elections, and then brought on the recession of ’73-74. What about the permanent decline in manufacturing and wages that has taken place in America since 1972? Also worth pointing out is that we haven’t had a balanced budget since Johnson was in the White House. And it was Nixon who first politicized the Supreme Court by promising to appoint conservatives who shared his “law and order” philosophy. But in fact it is difficult to point to his domestic achievements because his was a legacy of largely neglecting the pressing social problems of the day by proposing useless diversions; smoke-and-mirrors such as “Revenue Sharing,” privatizing the post office, and welfare or health-care reforms that never came to pass.
Before we eulogize Richard Milhous Nixon, shouldn’t we consider the kind of a man he was personally? Perhaps we could assess this by the company he kept. There were the thorough-going mediocrities he appointed to cabinet positions, Laird, Butz, and Hickle; the utterly lame Supreme Court appointments of Hainsworth, Carswell, and Rehnquist; and of course his choice of the corrupt non-entity, Agnew, and later the bungling dullard, Ford for the second highest office in the land. Then there were the fanatics who ran his day-to-day affairs, like Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Colson. And there were schemers from whom he sought advice, like Dean, Haig, and Kissinger. There were his millionaire buddies, B.B. Rebozo and W. Clement Stone. And what are we to make of weird characters like G. Gordon Liddy, Martha Mitchell, and Whitaker Chambers? Would you like to know any of these people?
And just what kind of man draws-up a “White House enemies list,” or orders the plumbers squad to break-in to the office of Daniel Elsberg’s psychiatrist, or secretly tapes supposedly confidential White House conversations? Are these the actions of an admirable man or a deceitful paranoiac?
And what kind of man orders a start to bombing on Christmas day?
Before we eulogize Richard Milhous Nixon let us consider the fraud that characterized his politics. Starting with his character assassination of Jerry Voorhis, continuing with his red-bating and smearing of Helen Gahagan Douglas, the political slush funds, the false candor of the Checkers Speech, and the out-right lie of having a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, on through the massive illegal fund-raising by C.R.E.E.P during the ’72 campaign, Richard Nixon leaves a malodorous trail of dirty tricks and fraud dressed-up with empty rhetoric about “honesty” and “duty.” And there was also the divisive “Southern Strategy” and the coded racism of his calls for “law and order.” Aside from a score of Watergate convictions, there were also the separate scandals that fell close associates John Connelly and Spiro Agnew. And let us not over-look the financial shenanigans that begin with using campaign funds to pay his mortgage in the late 40’s, continue with the lavishing of tax-payer dollars on the “western White House” at San Clemente, and end with his failure to report $250,000- in income to the I.R.S. while president.
And have you forgotten swamp-like mire of Watergate? How the Committee to Re-Elect the President formed a “Plumbers Squad” for break-ins and dirty tricks. The willful cover-up, “stone-walling” as it were, by the White House when these “plumbers” are caught red-handed. The foot-dragging by the F.B.I. and Justice Department. The tapes, and the gap in the tape, and the bogus transcripts. The court orders, the injunctions, and the “Saturday night massacre.” The back-pedaling, the spurious dissimulations, the clap-trap about “executive privilege,” “protecting the Office of the Presidency,” and all the rest of it. Do you remember the impeachment hearings? Well I do, and it was a national disgrace. But the crowning affront to the public trust is that, because he was pardoned by president Ford, the exposure of these crimes in open court has never taken place and Richard Nixon will forever remain an “un-indicted co-conspirator.”
Nixon’s lasting contribution to the political life of this country is a legacy of distrust for our leaders and a permanent lowering of standards for public figures. When Franklin Roosevelt died, men wept openly on the street; can you imagine anyone crying over the peaceful death of a President ever again?
While L.B.J. had a genuine concern for the poor of this country, just as Hubert Humphrey was a tireless champion for the working man, and Ike stood as almost a father figure to “Middle America,” could you name any group, principle, or idea that Richard Nixon stood for? Even Herbert Hoover was eulogized as “the Great Humanitarian” for his organization of the Belgian Relief Effort. Is there any humanitarian act, charitable effort, or self-less gesture associated with Richard Milhous Nixon? I don’t think so, but you could always call up Helen Gahagan Douglas,
or Daniel Ellsberg and ask them!