Go ahead, laugh at poor Dick Nixon.
It’s a favorite parlor sport this winter, quoting the private memoranda of the former President--titillating examples of which have been culled from recently released national archives and collected in a book called “From: The President,” edited by Washington writer Bruce Oudes.
The documents themselves, as we might expect, are in many ways resonant of this extraordinary, often tortured man who reached the pinnacle of power 20 years ago after such a long and stormy quest. So, largely spent by his striving, Richard Nixon sits in the Oval Office from 1969 to 1972 spewing out a stream of conscious and unconscious trivia on the trappings of the hard-won office.
In Oudes’ anthology of presidential dictation, the leader of the Free World seems to fret about everything, from Teddy Kennedy’s peccadilloes to the leg-room under White House tables, from wine lists or bowling balls or the party loyalty of special-events musicians to the manifold subversion by the media and the Establishment, or the ingratitude of American Jews for the latest shipment of jet fighters to Israel.
“Somebody,” he says in a typical third-person admonition to his men, “constantly has to be telling the press until it runs out their ears that the President is working hard.” Nixon instructs White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman to “point out RN’s resiliency when the going is toughest.”
It is mostly a pathetic and disrobing monologue--a little like Captain Queeg’s self-destructive testimony in “The Caine Mutiny.” And nowhere has the ridicule and public dismay been sharper than among the very conservatives who once admired and supported Nixon. Thus a venerable columnist of the right like James J. Kilpatrick typically finds in the private memos a President “vain, proud, painfully sensitive to slight . . . a man obsessed with image.” It is all, Kilpatrick concludes cluckingly, “just a bit paranoid.”
Yet while Oudes has certainly performed a valuable public service with his glimpse into the archives, and while the Kilpatricks can cite ample evidence for their psychiatric excommunication of a fallen President, there is something more than ironic--even insidious--in the entertainment.
To begin with, this Richard Nixon whom the conservatives now pity as flawed if not disturbed is very much the same politician who made the American South safe for a Republican majority, and the Cold War fit for Republican statesmanship. Without Nixon’s historic if sometimes hidden revolution in party politics of the Old Confederacy and the New Sun Belt, neither Ronald Reagan nor the incumbent George Bush could have added up the electoral arithmetic to make it to the presidency. Without Nixon’s opening to China and the earlydetente with the Soviet Union, the Republicans--in power or out--would likely still be mired in the mythology and miasma of a postwar Cold War era that has long since been supplanted by more subtle international challenges.
It was Richard Nixon, too--between those peevish musings about prerogatives--whose Administration quietly began the real dismantling of the New Deal that Ronald Reagan brought to a kind of climax, and that conservatives find so gratifying. The President, it turns out, was working pretty hard after all.
There is the added irony that Nixon was also the chief executive and patron who personally rescued Bush, an obscure Texas politician, after a trouncing by Lloyd Bentsen in the 1970 Senate race. It was Nixon who put Bush in the politically sustaining spotlight of the United Nations ambassadorship, then appointed him GOP national chairman, where Bush first planted the seeds of his political comeback and his own eventual presidency.
Beyond Reagan and Bush, the Republicans now rule the nation with a regime largely made by Richard Nixon, with the alumni and proteges of this man who wrote the petty memoranda--from William Rehnquist as chief justice of the Supreme Court to the ranks of the new Cabinet and the corridors of Congress, to the plush law offices and consultancies of a whole generation of GOP courtiers. Yes, it was Nixon who really made Washington safe--and rather profitable--for Republicans.
Yet the tittering at Nixon’s memos is not simply a matter of ungrateful conservatives. Worst of all, to consign Richard Nixon to some category of aberrant personality is to obscure what even some of his angry dicta foreshadowed in government and leadership--the shrewd callousness toward the burgeoning underclass in America, the benign, casual bigotry that stopped the civil-rights revolution at the crucial economic threshold, the spinning of the web of special-interest government that has come to threaten the strangling of our democracy, not to mention the transmutation of the presidency itself into mere public relations.
The man who signed these painful memos we elected to national office four out of five times, a record equaled in American politics only by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The last decades of this century may acquire many names, but most of us in the United States have grown up and spent our adult lives in what has truly been the Nixon Era.
So go ahead, laugh at poor Dick. See him flail against his enemies, real and imagined. See him write things funny for a President. But it never really was--and is not--a laughing matter.