James Rosen on Nixon's Legacy
As President Nixon sat in the Oval Office on Wednesday, June 2, 1971, the sun’s rays splashing brilliantly across the blue and gold carpet embroidered with the presidential seal, he brooded about the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. He weighed it against the campaigns of World War II, in which he had served. This awakened the combative instincts in the old anti-Communist, charged him anew, amid the high stakes of the Cold War, to seek not some negotiated settlement or fig-leaf withdrawal, but victory. In his yellow-pad notes of the meeting, previously unpublished, White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman recorded:
P. will not go out of VN whimpering
play hole card in Nov. — bomb NVN totally
unless we get our breakthrough turn right all the way
we’re screwing up so many things
have to be tougher on domestic [policies, too]
P. is not lib — is conserv. –
all our programs are wrong — gain nothing & wrong for country
This was no fleeting sentiment. A few weeks later, Nixon admonished Haldeman that the president’s aides had been “derelict in not moving on Grt. Society programs.” Why, seven months had passed since the midterm elections, after which all the heavy hitters — Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Chuck Colson, Don Rumsfeld — had flown into Key Biscayne and the president had ordered: “Go for increases in [the] military budget and military assistance and squeeze the Great Society programs.”
What happened? Why were those programs still flourishing? Why were his goddamn orders always ignored? Hadn’t he instructed them, in April of 1970, to do something about the federal work force? Of the civil service, he’d told Haldeman, “All it’s for is freezing mediocre people into jobs.”
From Haldeman’s notes:
need to move
ahead on gov’t wide [effort]
get a hold of big government
Now, as the summer of ’71 dawned, the White House was reeling from a series of news leaks. Publication of the Pentagon Papers had been followed almost immediately by the even more damaging disclosure, also in the New York Times, of the administration’s fallback posture in its negotiations with the Soviet Union over SALT, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Was there not a single goddamn secret our government could keep? Kennedy never had to put up with this kind of crap! The president longed to punish the leakers and thereby restore, somehow, the powers and prerogatives of the nuclear-age presidency.
At the same time, Nixon was consumed by a larger discontent, that disquieting sense of disconnect from his own presidency: “P. is not lib — is conserv. — all our programs are wrong.” Ehrlichman, the domestic-policy chief and resident liberal, was presently butting heads with Commerce secretary Maurice Stans, the fastidious accountant who had been Ike’s budget chief, over the cost of environmental regulations. In adjudicating the dispute, Nixon reckoned that any inherent risk should be harnessed to an overriding goal, as Haldeman captured in his notes in those weeks.
all decisions in environment & consumer [protection policy]
shld lean tds. jobs . . . [June 8, 1971]
examine all pollution bills
in terms of current economic effect
put brakes on where we can — w/o getting caught . . .
[If it’s] jobs vs. seat belts . . . jobs come first . . . [July 23, 1971]
Stans told P. $56 bill of priv. investment are being held up because of environment restrictions
E[hrlichman] says not true — Stans says is true . . .
[We must] fight for the system
& against welfare, the environ, Grt. Society, consumer
speak up for Stans views [August 7, 1971]
All presidents brood from time to time. Plunged into a loneliness only his predecessors would understand, the nation’s chief executive will occasionally entertain deep doubt about the direction in which his administration is drifting. Dreary midterm elections have a way of bringing it on. What’s remarkable about the real-time record Haldeman created is that it contains a modern president’s explicit expression of what he was for and what he believed himself to be.
This is of particular value in the unique case of Richard Nixon, whose centenary was marked on January 9. At 100, Nixon still intrigues and confounds the country in which was on a national ticket five times, a feat shared only by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Books, films, and plays about “RN” are still regularly produced; and while his singular disgrace at having been the only president to resign is unlikely ever to be eclipsed, surveys taken after Nixon’s death, in April 1994, reflected greater appreciation for his foreign-policy achievements. The late Robert Bork pronounced him “probably the most intelligent president of [the second] half of the 20th century.”
Conservatives, especially, should find the Haldeman notes instructive. A few years ago, in the green room at Fox News, I introduced myself to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who was then crusading for all 3,067 counties in America to name something after Ronald Reagan. I asked him: Don’t you think Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and John Mitchell, despite their ultimate disgrace, deserve more credit for the postwar ascendancy of conservatism? After all, they championed law and order, and stood against amnesty, abortion, and acid, as well as media bias, when it was least fashionable to do so — the age of Radical Chic — and carried 49 states. Weren’t the Reagan Democrats, in fact, the silent majority that Nixon had rallied a decade earlier? Norquist, returning to his newspaper, dismissed me summarily: “As far as I was concerned, Nixon, Agnew, and Mitchell were on the other side.”
The other side! Nixon had barely concluded his first inaugural address when L. Brent Bozell warned conservatives, in an open letter, that the new president had “rejected every distinctive feature of your movement.” William F. Buckley Jr., soon to orchestrate the issuance of a conservative manifesto declaring a “suspension of support” for the president, was still inclined to a measure of realism. “Did anyone really expect,” Buckley asked in The New York Times Magazine in August 1971, “that Richard Nixon would dismantle the welfare state?” The founder of National Review also allowed that Nixon’s upcoming trip to Peking could, over time, produce a “state of affairs . . . for which American conservatives would concede that our diplomatic détente with Red China was indispensable.” And in crediting Nixon with “an honest try” in the nomination of two strict constructionists to the Supreme Court — both rejected by the Senate — Buckley acknowledged a central truth about the Nixon presidency: It was the first in 120 years in which the president assumed office with the opposition controlling both houses of Congress.
Moreover, to win the presidency when Nixon did, at the close of the Sixties, was to attain the great prize in a time of its diminishment. For two decades, since his election to the vice presidency at the age of 39, Nixon had observed at close range the exercise of power at the highest levels. How much he had witnessed in the Fifties and Sixties! How ruthlessly the Kennedys and LBJ, with J. Edgar Hoover’s slavish complicity, had played the game! Now it was his turn! But, somewhere along the line, the ground shifted. The news media, with newfound speed and brazen slant, began reporting all kinds of things they never had before. Hoover, aged and embattled, was suddenly prudish about the performance of “sensitive” operations. The bureaucracy was in open revolt, emptying whole filing cabinets of classified material onto the front pages. All the institutions of the establishment faced assault from the culture itself: Now, for the first time, we had a “counterculture.” All this talk of Amerikan repression, in the age of Woodstock!
With Stalinist zeal, the latter-day American Right, elevating wage and price controls and Watergate above all else, has airbrushed Richard Nixon from postwar history. And yet, as today’s GOP wonders how to adapt to changed demographic realities and appeal to new voters, its leaders could do worse than to regain their vision of Nixon and his crucial role in the rise of the Right. His capture, in 1960, of 32 percent of the black vote stands as the modern record for a Republican presidential nominee. And the ’72 landslide was accomplished before the advent of the religious Right or the conservative commentariat. Nixon hadn’t been president 60 days when he began hounding Haldeman to get busy on building a national conservative infrastructure.
Wants list re: building new establishment [March 19, 1969]
Need to build a new estab.
build our kind of people — intellectuals
do this all thru [society] –
i.e. business community etc. [May 1, 1969]
Try to mobilize 8 like [Ross] Perot –
to buy [a TV] network [August 5, 1969]
develop a money group for the future
expand our lists –
don’t just keep asking the same people
develop our own establishment
across the country [February 4, 1970]
build our establishment –
press, acad, business, labor [Aug- ust 8, 1970]
have to build our own estab.
we’re in a deadly battle w/ estab. on many fronts
press, civil rights, education, political . . .
E[hrlichman] shld shape policies . . .
to move our way [August 9, 1970]
Nixon, in short, saw the future, the need for a kind of counterculture to the counterculture, and he did much to create it.
Yes, besides declaring himself a Keynesian, Nixon joined the Watergate cover-up. But it should be noted that Nixon’s involvement in Watergate commenced much later than is commonly recounted; that his actions were predicated on false information fed to him by John Dean, his deeply complicit and inherently untrustworthy counsel; and that the conspiracy was one whose origins Nixon never fully grasped and whose byzantine layers and players he never mastered.
Indeed, Nixon’s ineptitude in Watergate spoke to his inexperience in such grimy precincts. “Maybe,” he shrugged, during a typically desultory discussion of money laundering, “it takes a gang to do that.” Paradoxically, this justified his removal from power: Any chief executive who cannot accomplish the necessary rounding up of a relatively trivial sum of cash, for the benefit of former and current CIA men whose silence would greatly benefit the national security, is simply not up to the job. One imagines Bill Clinton dispensing with the task in minutes, pausing only to inquire as to the desired denominations.
Even Dean, the president’s chief accuser, ventured during his often dishonest testimony before the Senate Watergate committee that the American people would eventually take a “balanced” view of Nixon’s legacy.
Now more than ever! And the means are freshly at hand: Easton Press has teamed with the Nixon Foundation in Yorba Linda, Calif., to reissue all ten of RN’s books — from Six Crises (1962) through Seize the Moment: America’s Challenge in a One-Superpower World (1992) — in handsome leather-bound editions. They make a fine addition to any library, but those who would profit most from reading them, one suspects, are Nixon’s successors at the helm of the Republican party.
– Mr. Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent of Fox News and the author ofThe Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.