Friday, April 02, 2010

Richard Nixon: Bad President!

January 20, 1969 – August 9, 1974, almost two terms

In terms of the Worst U.S. Presidents in history, for a long time in my estimation, Nixon was the one. He was elected President when I was twelve years old. My parents were big Nixon fans, which at the time I just accepted without judgment or opinion, because Presidents were not the stuff of children. I became more and more aware of the outcry against Nixon, because I read the paper every day and watched All In The Family, but I had no reason or stimulus to have an opinion different than my parents yet. It wasn’t until I was a High School freshman, with Nixon still occupying the Oval Office, that I found myself in a U.S. History class with a young firebrand teacher who did have an opinion and wasn’t shy about sharing it. Every day Mr. Coleco would give a spirited lecture about some aspect of U.S. History, both from the distant dusty past and the confusing present. He made it clear to those of us listening exactly what was going on in Washington with the Watergate Scandal and the Hearings. I liked Mr. Coleco, because he talked to us as if we were adults, and he had a sense of humor, so suddenly I had an opinion about Nixon: he was a crook!

When Nixon resigned the White House in disgrace in August of ’74, my family was on an East Coast vacation. The day he made his farewell speech we were staying in a hotel in Erie, Pennsylvania. "Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow...” Even through the crushing shame and disappointment that my parents were feeling, as well as what felt to me like the epic historical implications of the event, inwardly I was celebrating it as a victory for Democracy, or at least what I understood of it from listening to Mr. Coleco. For years afterward I thought of Nixon as a Bad President – certainly the worst I had experienced, an opinion I clung to even during the baffling years of Reagan, and was unshaken until W. subjected us to eight years of his scabrous, lawbreaking, condescending, intellectually challenged, train wreck of a presidency. I still get slightly queasy thinking about what he and his rat fink buddies did to this country.

Nowadays, with the softening of intervening years, it’s clear to me that one can, but shouldn’t judge Nixon’s presidency solely based on the power crazed behavior of his that led to Watergate. He actually achieved a great deal, for a crook – and a Republican crook at that! There are some historians who, whether they think Nixon was a “Good” President or a “Bad” President, believe he was one of the greatest Presidents of the 2oth Century, and you can’t dispute that, unlike many of the mooks on my list, he certainly did a lot, “good” and “bad”.

The stuff you could praise: Nixon opened the giant doors of diplomacy and trade with China – a stunning feat for the period, and he worked with the Soviets to craft the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and initiate d├ętente – even more amazing because Nixon had historically been so virulently anti-communist and all. (He once referred to Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent during the contentious 1950 Senate race as “Pink right down to her underwear”, apparently unaware of the inadvertent genital impression it evoked. Douglas retaliated by referring to Nixon as “Tricky Dick”, apparently intentionally utilizing the genital innuendo. Atta girl!) He eventually got us out of Vietnam and brought American troops home from Southeast Asia. He increased Social Security spending, advocated affirmative action programs for racial minorities, launched a broad environmental initiative, ended conscription (one year before I would have been eligible for the draft – Thank You Tricky Dick!), and was surprisingly progressive in his approach to handling inflation and unemployment.

Why else would Noam Chomsky himself remark that, in some respects, Nixon was "the last liberal president."? At his non-power drunk core, Nixon believed in using government wisely to benefit all and actually supported the idea of practical liberalism.

The stuff, aside from Watergate, that wasn’t so good: Nixon dealt too harshly with anti-war protesters while he approved and then expanded a covert bombing campaign in Cambodia, (some 20,000 American soldiers died while Nixon was in office, not to mention countless Southeast Asians) appointed several conservative Supreme Court judges, cut funds to NASA programs (we coulda had a base on the MOON!), and one has to say, on the uber-negative side, he could be considered one of the chief architects of the modern Republican party.

In spite of the self-rehabilitation efforts Nixon undertook in the years after his disgrace and resignation, the predominant historical image (and certainly my own) of Nixon was negative. He had made a lot of enemies during his political career, and politicians have long memories. Here are two quotes about Nixon from Democratic leaders from different generations:

"Richard Nixon is a no-good lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in." Harry S Truman

Ouch! (No disrespect intended, but when I read that quote, I try to hear it in Truman’s voice, which to me always sounded a lot like a cross between Pat Paulsen and Elmer Fudd)

"In 200 years of history, he's the most dishonest president we've ever had. I think he's disgraced the presidency." Jimmy Carter

(Now there are some who would argue that Carter was so ineffective as President that he would have no right to criticize. But Carter was above all, an honest man, a moral man – two traits he held as important attributes for a politician. While realizing that Carter was ultimately not a very good President, I like and respect him, and the added fact that he was also someone who knew history, and took it’s lessons seriously would cause me to believe his assessment of Nixon.)

So ultimately Nixon, like all “Bad” Presidents, is a bit of a mixed bag. This entire exercise has been a clear indication of the importance of embracing the Gray. Very little in the world, or indeed in history, is black or white. It’s the nuances in the vast middle Gray that make it so interesting.

Fun Facts: As a student, Nixon was known as Gloomy Gus. A great synonym for that is “Picklepuss”, which personally I think is more applicable here.

Nixon was the first president to visit all 50 states. Apropos of nothing, much like the Fun Fact that Nixon’s second Secretary of Agriculture was Earl Butz. Huh huh! “Butz”

Nixon was in Dallas on the day that John F Kennedy was shot. Conspiracy theorists: discuss.

And, most awesome of all: In 1970, Elvis Presley, more than likely fairly buzzed on painkillers, visited the White House to talk about drugs – and gave Nixon a gold revolver as a gift a gun which he somehow had managed to get past the Secret Service detail that guarded the President.