Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Paradoxical Century of Nixon

"The greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes; because only if you've been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain. ... Always give your best. Never get discouraged. Never be petty. Always remember: Others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win, unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Richard Nixon (1913–1994)
Farewell address, Aug. 9, 1974

Today is the centennial of Richard Nixon's birth.

That is an odd thing to realize, remembering the Nixon years as I do. I was only a child at the time, but I was old enough to understand that America's young people were protesting being sent halfway around the world to fight in a war that few of them seemed to support.

Or that blacks were rioting in all of the major cities in the United States.

It was a strange and confusing time, an unsettling time in America and the world when Nixon finally won the presidency 45 years ago — and the American people probably couldn't have elected a stranger man president.

Nor, I suppose, could they have elected a more intelligent president.

Nixon was an enigma during his life. He remains so nearly 20 years after his death.

"Do you want to make a point, or do you want to make a change? Do you want to get something off your chest, or do you want to get something done?"

Nixon campaign speech, 1968

In the years that have passed since the end of the Nixon presidency, I have often reflected on him and wondered which of the Nixons the public saw was the real Nixon — the one who seemed to so earnestly pursue the label of peacemaker or the often–crude, conniving Nixon of the White House tapes.

I'm inclined to think that, somewhere in between, the truth lies.

But one thing of which I am certain at this time, when Nixon's Republican Party is looking for a way to recapture the U.S. Senate and the White House, is that the GOP can learn some important things from Nixon's career.

Nixon wasn't quite the right–winger that modern political observers may think of when they think of the Republican Party. In his day, right–wingers could be found in both parties, but even then, Nixon wasn't a conventional Republican.

For one thing, he wasn't exactly an advocate of smaller government. Well, not entirely. He founded the Environmental Protection Agency. He was also behind the federal government's first affirmative action program.

During the Nixon presidency, "liberal" and "conservative" were not the most popular terms that were used to describe the existing political divide. "Hawk" and "dove," which were really more about military/foreign policy, were heard more frequently in those days.

That's because everything, it seemed, was seen through the prism of international conflict — in much the same way, things today are seen through the narrow prism of social issues.

Things are interrelated, though, which is what I often think modern politicos overlook. Nixon didn't. He was a true centrist, and the proof, I think, can be found in the fact that he often drew fire from both liberals and conservatives.

The nature of politics is that if a decision is made that will benefit one group, it must affect another group in an adverse way. If something is given to someone, it must be taken from someone else. Nixon sought to be at the center of the imaginary scale, where losses could be minimized.

But it also minimized the gains. Nixon won re–election by one of the widest margins in American history, but he was forced from office less than two years later. His majority was not permanent.

Nixon was a proponent of the triangulation theory long before it was applied to things like the assassination of President Kennedy. It was at the heart of his famous trips to Russia and China in 1972.

Nixon played one against the other that year. He certainly appeared to be motivated by a desire to "get something done," to be, as he said in his first inaugural address, a peacemaker.

But his motives weren't always clear. And, while I realize Nixon's flaws were many, that may have been his greatest — that he was self–centered.
"He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time."

Hunter S. Thompson

Perhaps, in the 21st century, Nixon would be regarded as a RINO by members of the Republican Party. Then as now, there were members of each party who despised members of the other party on principle, but Nixon had his share of detractors within his own party as well.

Nevertheless, he knew how to win, both elections and legislative battles, and his knowledge came from having to adapt to changing conditions. As president, he promoted things like environmental protection and affirmative action as much to pre–empt his rivals as anything else.

It seems to me from what I have read that, if Watergate had not interfered, Nixon might have pursued policies in his second term that, in effect, repealed many of the more liberal policies of his first term.

His performance on the foreign stage was filled with contradictions, though, and I haven't a clue what a Nixon unencumbered by Watergate might have done in that arena.

When he sought his second term, after failing to end the Vietnam conflict as promised in the explosive year of 1968, he often spoke of seeking "peace with honor" — an objective he pursued with an apparently contrary expansion of the war to neighboring countries.

Incredibly, he won re–election by seizing the reputation of peacemaker from the Democrats, who fancied themselves the party of peace.

That was the tightrope Nixon walked as a centrist, and that was hard to do then, but it is even more difficult now.

For the most part, Republicans have nominated presidential candidates who were center or right–of–center in their politics since Nixon's day (and even before), but, increasingly, those nominees are expected to pass a right–wing litmus test that only extremists can truly pass.

That is something Republicans are going to have to give up if they hope to continue to be one of the parties in our two–party system.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, I heard many Republicans bemoaning their performance with minorities and discussing ways to appeal to those groups. Forty years ago, Nixon received more than one–third of the black vote, about six times the share of the black vote that Mitt Romney received two months ago.

Romney, of course, had a black opponent, and Nixon did not. Nevertheless, there are lessons for modern Republicans to learn from Nixon about adjusting to a changing political landscape.

But Nixon was a flawed man, and, thus, it was ironic that he was struck by an almost blinding moment of clarity in the very last moments of his presidency. As he gave his farewell address, he advised the White House staff, "Others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

That was Nixon's story. He had achieved what he set out to achieve, but he was undone by his own hatreds and insecurities.

It was almost Shakespearean. Nixon held what he most desired in the palms of his hands, but it slipped through his fingers and shattered on the floor.

The century of Nixon stands as a cautionary tale. It offers guidance in how to cobble together a political coalition, and it offers guidance in how not to lose what you have won.

A century after his birth, Richard Nixon remains a paradox.

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