Nixon 'the Last of the New Deal Liberals'
The name of Richard Nixon (who died Friday after suffering a stroke this week) is indelibly stained by the Watergate scandal: a scandal now cast in ironic light by the Whitewater troubles of President Bill Clinton — whose wife began her legal career as a staffer on the House of Representatives Watergate committee.
While Nixon’s behavior during the Watergate coverup was infinitely worse than Clinton’s suppression of the truth about Whitewater, and while the Watergate investigation discovered abuses of power in the Nixon White House far graver than anything Clinton is known to have done, it is also true that the fundamental allegation at issue in Whitewater would, if true, be far graver than Watergate.
President Nixon’s election-year dirty tricks in 1972 were well within the bounds of the political game as it had until then been played: Compared to Lyndon Johnson’s voter fraud or the Democratic ballot-stuffing that cost Nixon the presidency in 1960, the burglary of Democratic headquarters in the Watergate hotel was a college prank. At the bottom of Whitewater, on the other hand, is one of the most serious possible accusations against a political official: that then governor Clinton betrayed his public responsibilities for personal financial gain.
Some of Nixon’s liberal detractors also want to besmirch him for taking so long to exit Vietnam, but the injustice of this criticism is truly galling. Two liberal administrations, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s, led the U.S. into Vietnam. Nixon tried to extricate the U.S. from the war in the least dishonorable possible way. He was unsuccessful in the end, and South Vietnam fell. He might have been more successful had his opponents not exploited the Watergate scandal to destroy his political power. In fact, the memory of liberals urging the U.S. into a war, and then funking it the moment things got difficult, is one reason that so many of us on the right are so skeptical of the promptings of today’s liberals to intervene in Yugoslavia.
On the other hand, Nixon’s worst enemies — like Senator George McGovern — now praise him for his worst foreign policy mistake: detente. While Nixon’s opening to China was a brilliant tactical ploy, the same cannot be said for his Soviet policy. Nixon never doubted that the Soviet Union was a dangerous, aggressive enemy of the West; but he unwisely flattered himself that he could publicly flatter Leonid Brezhnev while maintaining U.S. military strength. Instead, Nixon’s emollient rhetoric destroyed political support for defence spending (the defence budget dropped by more than 33% between 1969 and 1974) and led to half a decade of humiliating U.S. retreats before Soviet imperialism. Only when Ronald Reagan reminded Americans of the dangerousness and wickedness of the Soviet Union did the will to contain and defeat it revive.
The excessive cleverness that characterized Nixon’s Soviet strategy did even more damage at home. Nixon aspired, like Benjamin Disraeli, to “steal the Whigs’ clothes” without deserting conservative principles. Instead, as former Nixon haters such as Tom Wicker of the New York Times have recognized, Nixon outsmarted himself into governing as the last of the New Deal liberals.
During Nixon’s six years in office, social spending (adjusted for inflation) doubled. Nixon instituted vast new regulatory bodies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission, among many others. Nixon issued the executive orders creating the affirmative action system in federal hiring, and Nixon appointees on the Supreme Court wrote the opinions forcing affirmative action upon the private sector.
It was Nixon who stoked the great inflation of the 1970s with an unprecedented bullying of the Federal Reserve to flood the country with cheap money. And it was Nixon who attempted to control that inflation by imposing unprecedented peacetime controls upon the economy, including wage and price controls and a 10% import surcharge. This bungled economic policy opened the way for the oil price shocks of 1973 and 1979, and all the catastrophes that followed.
Wicker aptly titled his book about Nixon One of Us. Political conservatives should agree. Nixon paid the right tribute in his speeches. But when it counted, he was always “one of them.”