I thought I’d never forget my outrage at Richard Nixon in the presidency (1969-74), but so I have, until now, when listening to Barbara Tuchman’s occasional pieces brings his astonishing depredations roiling back. Yet, he was in office when some of the cornerstones of our contemporary era were put in place: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, even abolishing the draft and putting in place an all-civilian army. He also visited China and shook Mao’s hand, the first American President to do so, which signaled to Russia that we were cultivating another Communist power, and may have furthered the rounds of talks to limit American and Russian nuclear arms proliferation.
Two things stand out in Tuchman’s incisive considerations: that the U.S. as a whole was just emerging from its Communist “witch-hunt”–she cites such activity as a recurring strain in the American character–all the way back to the Massachusetts witch trials in 1690. Nixon had risen to prominence in the House Un-American Activities Committee which helped finger Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy. He also created a “pink sheet” against his opponent in the 1949 California Senate campaign. This kind of suspicious sniffing around, along with a taste for undercover politics helped fuel the three major mistakes that led to his forced resignation (rather than impeachment). First as president, his tape-recording daily notes about his “agents,” and then these agents’ dirty tricks: bugging political opponents, harrassing activist groups, and breaking into Democratic party headquarters to steal supposedly incriminating papers–the Watergate affair. Finally his undercover bombing of Cambodia and Laos, once it was exposed, not only enraged the legions of anti-war activists but also added to Nixon’s reputation for going underground to proceed outside legal channels.
I remember loathing him. But it was more for the man’s weasel looks and his sneaky “smile-in-your-face” while stabbing you in the back behavior that I remember. We shouldn’t blame the weasel, after all, who is no more than a small predator trying to sustain itself in a narrow environmental niche. Barbara Tuchman, writing in the 1980s, suggests that the American presidency under John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon had risen above its supposed limitations to act outside the checks and balances forged in the constitution. Now, when our various heads of state–Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton or our country’s president Barack Obama–are so mightily opposed and stymied by gridlock in Congress or state legislature, when the legislative branches of government seem unable to reach consensus and pass necessary measures to reduce a mountain of national debt–I muse back on this era when presidents operated with sweeping powers, and wonder what the heck we can expect next. For all-out brawls, just this side of civil war, it’s hard to imagine anymore more wild than the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 or the various occupation of capitol grounds and flight of legislators in contemporary Wisconsin. Political theater at its wild and wooliest. I guess I’d rather have the conflict out in the open rather than, as Nixon tried, secretive and illegal. But when it means an obstruction of necessary government, I’d like to dispense with both.