Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I just read an interesting article by Conrad Black about Nixon and Watergate on National Review Online. It seems that after almost forty years, Woodward and Bernstein are still pursuing a vendetta against Richard Nixon.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Woodstein for our purposes) now claim, in a Washington Postpiece, that Nixon was “far worse than we thought,” and accuse him of conducting five “wars”: against the anti-war movement, on the media, against the Democrats, on justice, and on history. In evaluating such a volcanic farrago of pent-up charges, the facts must be arrayed in three tiers: the facts of Woodstein’s activities and revelations; the facts of the Watergate case and related controversies; and the importance of Watergate in an appreciation of the Nixon record.
The man is dead. They really need to move on. I wouldn’t say that Watergate was before my time exactly, though I was only four years old at the time. One of my earliest memories is hearing the word “Watergate” on the television and thinking it was a reference to some sort of dam.Obviously I didn’t follow the news at the time and am hardly interested in it now. I am amazed that some people, who were older at the time, still feel that it was one of the greatest scandals in American history and Nixon was somehow uniquely evil.
In the article, Black makes a good case that the scandal has been greatly exaggerated, an impression that I have gotten over the years.
The facts of Watergate have been wildly exaggerated. Neither in financing techniques nor in the gamesmanship with the other side was the Republican campaign of 1972 particularly unusual. And it was puritanical compared with what appears to have been the outright theft of the 1960 election for Kennedy over Nixon by Chicago’s Mayor Daley and Lyndon Johnson. And perhaps the all-time nadir in American presidential-election ethics was achieved in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson tried to salvage the election for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, with a completely imaginary claim of a peace breakthrough in the Vietnam talks a few days before the election. LBJ announced an enhanced bombing halt and more intensive talks in which the Viet Cong and the Saigon government would be “free to participate” (i.e., Saigon declined to attend since there had been no breakthrough).
In Watergate, Nixon knew nothing of the break-in, nor had he known anything of the earlier break-in at the office of Dr. Fielding, the psychotherapist of the thief and publisher of the Pentagon papers, Daniel Ellsberg. These papers reflected badly on Kennedy and Johnson, but had nothing to do with Nixon, and his opposition to their publication was based on the notion that secret government documents should not be stolen and published when national security is involved.
The congressional treatment of Nixon was an unmitigated outrage. The president’s counsel, John Dean, a slippery weasel who was up to his eyebrows in unauthorized illegal practices, made a plea-bargain deal and then gave perjured evidence against his own client, which would have been completely inadmissible in a law court. The House Judiciary Committee was a mockery. Its counsel, John Doar, a foaming-at-the-mouth partisan on all fours with Bradlee-Woodstein, produced five counts of impeachment, of which four were farcical on a Kafkaesque scale: Articles 2 to 5 of the impeachment alleged that Nixon “endeavored” to misuse the IRS (not that he had actually done so) and had violated his oath of office and the rights of other citizens. (By this last criterion, historically guilty parties would have been numerous and distinguished, including FDR, the Kennedys, and LBJ.) Article 3 impeached him for resisting Congress’s right to 147 tapes; presto, Nixon had no right to try in court to retain tapes of private conversations.
In fact, as far as abuse of power goes, Watergate seems to have been a minor affair. Other Presidents have committed far worse excesses. In addition to FDR, and LBJ, which Black mentions, I would add Woodrow Wilson, who surely was the President with the greatest contempt for individual liberties, and Andrew Jackson, who should have been for his refusal to enforce the Supreme Court decision Worcester v. Georgia.
Still, I would not go so far as Black does to exonerate Nixon. He may not have authorized the break in, but Nixon’s paranoid and insular style of governing and the siege mentality of his White House certainly did create a climate of lawlessness that made such activities seem acceptable. I also don’t quite agree that Nixon was a great president.
The assassinations and the endless race and anti-war riots ended. Nixon opened relations with China, negotiated and signed the greatest arms-control agreement in world history with the USSR, began a Middle East peace process, and ended segregation (thus sparing the country the nightmare of court-ordered race-based school busing, a measure that was opposed by almost all students and parents). He ended the draft, reduced the crime rate, and founded the Environmental Protection Agency. He proposed non-coercive universal health care and welfare, tax, and campaign-finance reform. Nixon’s full term was one of the most successful in U.S. history, which is why he was re-elected by the largest plurality in the country’s history (18 million).
I do believe that Nixon was one of the most intelligent men to sit in the oval office. He isn’t given much credit for the things he did accomplish, perhaps because of the hostility of Liberal historians, and partly because he tried to have a populist, anti-intellectual appeal. He wanted the support of the “silent majority”. Yet, I don’t think that any President since Nixon has had quite his intellectual capacity, except possibly Ronald Reagan, who was far from being the “amiable dunce” the Liberals sought to portray him as being. Such supposed super geniuses like Al Gore and Barack Obama do not strike me as being very smart at all.
But, despite his very real accomplishments, I hesitate to consider Nixon a great President. In part this is because so much of his domestic policy involve an expansion of government, a strange legacy for a supposed Conservative. In a very real sense, Nixon is the real author of much of the Great Society programs Republicans now campaign against. But, I don’t have to agree with a President to judge whether he was a good President or a poor one. Rather, I feel he was a below average President because his destruction was, in the end, largely of his own making. He knew he had enemies. He played into their hands. His obsessive, driven personality which brought him to the heights of power, brought him down. It is almost as if he were the hero of a Greek tragedy, who is destroyed by hubris. It is a pity that Nixon’s own flaws prevented him from doing a great deal of good in his second term. The world would be a better place today if Watergate had not occurred.
By the way, I remember reading Nixon’s book 1999 when it was published in 1988. Among other things, he discussed US-Soviet relations into the 21st century and seemed to assume the continued survival of the USSR. I thought, at the time, that he was wrong and that it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union collapsed, though I didn’t expect the collapse to begin as soon as the following year. I think the fact that Nixon could not conceive of the Communist experiment ending in such an abject failure exposed something defective in his worldview. Perhaps he put too much emphasis on power politics and not enough on the intangibles of the human spirit. He was not the sort to dare Gorbachev to tear down that wall.