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richard m. nixon

30 october 2008

Elizabeth Drew's book Richard M. Nixon is exceedingly skeptical about the 37th President. Nixon so largely rehabilitated himself before his death that a good portion of the American public (at least the younger portion) probably thinks of him as a somewhat misunderstood guy who presided over comic scandals while doing great stuff like going to China. Drew is under no illusions: "there is large room for doubt," she says (151) that Nixon was fit to be President.

As it fades into the glow of history, Watergate more and more takes on the lustre of an overgrown shenanigan. "Dirty tricks" by Tricky Dick and crew, including the impossible E. Howard Hunt and the egregious G. Gordon Liddy; the bizarrely acronymed CREEP; Dickensian character names like Egil Krogh and Bebe Rebozo – certainly, when compared to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Watergate seems like a mere diversion.

But as sinister as the actions of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others during the Bush 43 administration have seemed, there does seem (knock on wood) to be a certain constitutional order to their operating assumptions. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are probably cleaning out their desks as I write and getting ready to give either Obama or McCain a tour of the White House, and either Biden or Palin a tour of the Undisclosed Location.

With Nixon, one was never so sure. For a year-and-a-half after the storm of Watergate broke in full force over the White House, Nixon clung to an awesome power that he seemed increasingly unable to manage. This was a President, Drew points out, who even when in full control of his faculties and his political base, liked to try out such strategies as the "madman theory," which consisted of convincing foreign enemies that he might order a pre-emptive nuclear strike on them.

[One] problem with the madman theory was that over time it convinced much of the American public that the president was out of control. And another was that it didn't work. (Drew 68)

In other ways, the arrogation of power to the Executive that has been a feature of the Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 years is of a piece with Nixon's regime. "When the President does it that means it is not illegal," Nixon famously told David Frost (Drew 138). In his mind, a certain necessary sovereign immunity became conflated with sovereign license to do just about anything. Nixon's favorite quasi-legislative tactic, the impoundment of funds appropriated by Congress for projects he didn't like, has its heirs in the many "signing statements" by George W. Bush that indicate what parts of various laws he intends to enforce or not enforce.

How does one get to be Nixon? "What starts the process," the president revealed, "are the laughs and snubs and slights that you get when you are a kid" (Drew 136). In a sense, this is why so many of us are fascinated with Nixon as a tragic figure in history. It's hard to imagine being FDR, Ike or JFK, or even the patrician-turned-oil-millionaire George H.W. Bush. It's easy to imagine Lyndon Johnson's upbringing, but hard to imagine turning on the enormous Texa-chutzpah that characterized LBJ's every dealing with the world. But we can all imagine being a taunted, attenuated child. So if we imagine being President, we can identify with Nixon; most of us might do no better than he did. The wonder is not that he failed so abysmally, but that he won through to reach the highest office at all.

Drew, Elizabeth. Richard M. Nixon. New York: Times Books, 2007.