The anniversary of Richard Nixon’s downfall gives us a chance to look back on our troubled history. Mr. Nixon was a racist and a crook. At the same time, compared to today’s leaders, Tricky Dick looks like a courageous, visionary genius. This should be food for thought for everybody, regardless of where we might place ourselves on today’s political spectrum.
We have had many corrupt Presidential elections. John Kennedy may have defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 because a lot of cemeteries in Illinois and Texas voted for the Democrats, though there is some debate. Mr. Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968 because of treasonous negotiations with our battlefield enemies in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan’s campaign copied that strategy in 1980, undermining President Carter by dealing with his foreign adversaries. The 2000 election may have been the most cynical in our history.
Back in ’74, we got a President who wasn’t elected at all: Gerald Ford, who took office 40 years ago when Richard Nixon resigned. Mr. Ford had been appointed Vice President once Spiro T. Agnew resigned for not reporting cash bribes as income on his tax returns.
August 9, 1974 was the last day of summer school at Hollywood High. 40 years ago today, I brought a Sony AM-FM radio to school to follow events. At the time I considered Nixon’s departure to be a great victory for progress, proof that “the system works,” and cause for celebration. Ample evidence of the criminality of Richard Nixon and his co-conspirators can be found in audio recordings made in the White House. Many Californians detested Richard Nixon, rightly I think, for his campaigns for Congress in 1946 and for the Senate in 1948.
I worked as a teenage volunteer for the local Hollywood office of the George McGovern campaign in 1972, even though I wasn’t yet old enough to drive, much less vote. Watergate was a tiny issue, with one flyer reading “Bug Nixon Before Nixon Bugs You.” I still remember how distraught I was on election night in ’72, watching McGovern concede a landslide defeat before a sympathetic local audience. Seeing Mr. Nixon’s two rather somber victory speeches, one from the Oval Office and one from his campaign headquarters, made me queasy to think about the future. Watergate became a gigantic issue shortly after Nixon’s second inaugural. After leaving office a year and a half into his second term, he made quite a few TV appearances in an effort to rehabilitate his image, and he wrote a number of turgid books. President Bill Clinton gave a sentimental, ludicrous eulogy at Richard Nixon’s funeral.
What possible sympathy could we have for Richard Nixon, the lying, Red-baiting, carpet-bombing, conspiring, foul-mouthed racist?
Let’s look at the situation Mr. Nixon inherited when he took office in 1969. Hundreds of thousands of US troops were thousands of miles away from home, fighting an increasingly unpopular war that Nixon had supported from the start. The previous President, Lyndon Johnson, had taken office as a result of President Kennedy’s assassination, and it’s quite clear that Richard Nixon didn’t buy the Official Story any more seriously than I do. Not only that, but the tapes show that Nixon considered the JFK assassination relevant to the politics of his day. What might that imply? Wouldn’t it mean that Nixon took office knowing that Presidential authority had been violently overthrown by what President Eisenhower characterized as “the military-industrial complex?”
When Eisenhower became President in 1953, he made quick work of ending the Korean War. Nixon, on the other hand, ended up taking a deal at the end of 1972 that he could have had in 1969. Why? How come he didn’t do what Ike did less than 20 years earlier? Maybe it was because the office of the Presidency itself had been hugely weakened. Even so, a look at the record of the Nixon Administration and its colleagues in the mostly Democratic-controlled Congress shows many impressive – and progressive – achievements. Not only did the first term of the Nixon Presidency see passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, it also saw the President’s diplomatic openings to the Soviet Union and to the People’s Republic of China. Although it’s fair to judge Nixon’s hysterical anti-communism as helping create and maintain poor relations with these countries in the 40s and 50s, by the early 1970s the opposite was true.
So, exactly how is it that Richard Nixon went from a gigantic landslide in November 1972 to leaving office in disgrace less than two years later? Is it because of a domestic political spying scandal, which the President illegally covered up? That’s what history tells us, but is it really true? At the time of Nixon’s resignation, many commentators and participants said that the story was much deeper, more complicated and far more serious than the one we all followed during those final months of that Administration.
I’d suggest that a more plausible reason for Nixon’s downfall was his failure to keep the loyalty of the US military and intelligence communities. He didn’t end the Vietnam War quickly, but even as he dropped more bombs he withdrew ground forces, and finally he cut a deal. It’s also evident that the Nixon-Kissinger negotiations with the Soviets and Chinese were done largely in secret – from much of the rest of the US government. I suggest that means Richard Nixon was more serious – and more courageous – than most of his adversaries have been able to recognize.
Have a look at RN’s second inaugural address. Really listen to what he is saying. Nixon ended the ground war in Vietnam and revolutionized relations with the two biggest real adversaries our country faced at the time. This is a peace speech, backed up by real diplomacy including nuclear arms reduction talks. This address should be seen as a sequel to President Kennedy’s American University speech. I’d suggest that both speeches – and the policies they represented – crossed a few bright lines that our real masters simply will not permit.
For a moment let’s reconsider the Nixon Administration’s domestic goals. The President speaks about decentralizing government authority. Did he want to end welfare? No, that wouldn’t happen until “liberal” Democrat Bill Clinton, more than 20 years later. Nixon proposed a guaranteed annual income for each family unit, to fight poverty and to get rid of the expensive and humiliating welfare bureaucracy. So, our grotesquely racist President actually advocated policies that were far more liberal and kind than all of his successors! It’s too bad he was such a coarse, unappealing, petty man.
Watergate is a wildly complicated topic. One of the more troubling books to look at is Silent Coup, which goes into a lot of detail about the President’s real enemies, as opposed to the political adversaries who made it onto Nixon’s enemies list. For example, it calls out Bob Woodward as a career asset of US Naval Intelligence. The authors present compelling evidence that suggests the Watergate scandal was orchestrated by deep and powerful political and economic groups who were far to the right of the President. While you’re at it, read JFK and the Unspeakable, which is the best single book about Mr. Kennedy’s assassination.
40 years ago, I celebrated Nixon’s humiliation as much as anybody. Today I observe that Richard M. Nixon might have been the last President of the First American Republic.
OK, that’s enough thinking for now. Remember, friends – You Can’t Drink All Day Unless You Start in the Morning!