At the height of the Watergate scandal, aides close to President Richard Nixon feared he had become so unglued from reality that direction was given to ignore orders from the President in the event he sought the deployment of nuclear weapons. While the Middle East was burning from the ravages of the Yom Kippur War, the President could not take a call from the Prime Minister of Great Britain because he was drunk. White House logs dutifully recorded the many after-midnight calls Nixon made to aides and supporters, railing against the injustices being heaped upon him and musing about his own political future. A man who detested people was the most powerful person on the planet for more than six years.
No wonder I love President Nixon.
That might surprise those who follow me on Twitter or read this blog. After all, how could a Yellow Dog Democrat have such an affinity for a Republican President? Like many politicians, Nixon contained contradictions, they were just bigger and more sharply drawn than others. He was an anti-semite whose closest aide was Jewish, loathed the "Eastern Establishment" but worked at a white-shoe Wall Street law firm, pandered to blue collar America but signed into law the Clean Water Act, established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and installed price controls to tame inflation. Of course, he also invaded Laos and Cambodia (without telling anyone), dropped more tonnage on Vietnam than the Allies dumped on Germany in World War II, used the IRS to go after his political enemies, and directed burglaries to discredit his critics. We basically had Lord Voldemort running our country.
And it is in those contradictions that I find Nixon's story so compelling. The hard scrabble upbringing, the near cuckolding he experienced in courting his future wife Pat (he literally chauffeured her around on at least one date with another guy), the meteoric rise that led him to the Vice Presidency at the tender age of 40 and the political obituary people were ready to write about him after successively losing the White House to John Kennedy in 1960 and the California Governor's race to Pat Brown two years later. Nixon's pathological need for love and validation was balanced against an equally strong no-fucks-to-give attitude where race baiting, playing to people's fears, and score settling were second nature.
In the balance, he may or may not have extended the Vietnam War to help him win the Presidency and then jettisoned negotiations only to cut a deal years later when it was politically expedient to do so, was the first American President to visit China, signed an arms reduction agreement with the Soviet Union, and fostered a coup in Argentina. This was not a man unafraid to wield power, but his out-of-control behavior was ultimately his undoing. Paranoid and untrusting, the Watergate break-in was an unnecessary effort to malign a party (and a candidate) in the process of imploding. Nixon's 49-state romp that November underscored the superfluousness of his cronies' illegal behavior, but the man could not help himself. And when he got caught, instead of owning up to his actions (and possibly eliding impeachment), he dug in his heels, destroyed evidence, and brought the country to the brink of a Constitutional crisis before finally standing down.
More than forty years after his resignation, Nixon's influence on national politics is greater than ever. While Reagan is credited with heralding in the modern conservative revolution, Nixon is now understood as a sort of John the Baptist, mobilizing disaffected Democrats who were not keen on the party's liberal drift into the Republican fold (these same people would later be deemed "Reagan Democrats"), cultivating the "Silent Majority" of, primarily, white, middle-class Americans to rail against the freedoms of the 1960s and turn patriotism into a wedge issue to be wielded against those who burned the flag and opposed the Vietnam War. Reagan would appropriate this strategy to great effect, arguing that Democrats had diminished our nation's power and then using that urge to wash away the stain of Vietnam by building up our military against the Soviets and "invading" Grenada.
Nixon also seeded the federal bureaucracy with conservative lawyers like Robert Bork and William Rehnquist who would play an outsized role in molding our jurisprudence, gave voice to the "unitary executive" theory of foreign policy that would not come into full bloom until the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, and made groundbreaking decisions about how we interacted with the other major powers in the world. Like Bill Clinton, a man who would seek Nixon's counsel when he ascended to the Presidency, our 37th President was blessed with enormous political skills and enormous personal failings. And like Clinton, historians will ponder the "what if" of Nixon for decades to come.
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