Posts Tagged ‘Nixon’

Obama is no Nixon

May 23, 2013
President Nixon meets with China's Communist P...

President Nixon meets with China’s Communist Party Leader, Mao Tse-Tung, 02/29/1972 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I ran across this defense of Richard Nixon by William Kristol at the Weekly Standard, via The Virginian, via Instapundit.

The thoughtful Carl Cannon has written a piece, “Richard Milhous Obama,” concluding that our current president has more in common with our 37th than President Obama’s partisans would like to acknowledge. The estimable Victor Davis Hanson has weighed in, defending against liberal dissents the proposition that “Nixon Is a Fair Comparison” with Obama.

I protest. Will no one stand up for Richard Nixon? Richard Nixon was a combat veteran, a staunch and brave anti-Communist, a man who took on the liberal establishment and at times his own party’s as well, a leader who often thought for himself and had the courage of his convictions, a president who assembled a first-rate Cabinet and one who—while flawed both in character and in policy judgment—usually tried to confront the real problems and deal with challenges of his times. Richard Nixon led neither the country nor his own administration from behind.

I worked for Richard Nixon (well, I worked for two months in the Nixon White House in 1970 as a summer intern). I voted for Richard Nixon (in 1972, my first vote, against George McGovern—and one about which I have no regrets). I knew Richard Nixon (very slightly—I met him on a few occasions in groups in the late 1970s and the 1980s, and then a couple of times when I worked for Vice President Quayle). And so I feel obliged to rise to Richard Nixon’s defense, and to say, with all due respect, to our current president: Barack Obama, you’re no Richard Nixon.

If Richard Nixon had had the kind of fawning media coverage that Barack Obama has had, he would be considered one of our greatest presidents. If Barack Obama had had the hostile media coverage that Nixon had, I doubt he would ever have been elected president. Nixon had his faults and even though he was considered a conservative, he was far too big-government oriented for my liking, still I think he deserves a little better legacy than he has gotten. I have to disagree with the Virginian’s comment, though.

Keep in mind that on the international front, Richard Nixon single-handedly pried the Communist alliance between the USSR and China apart. The Nixon IRS never actually went after Nixon’s enemies. And Nixon didn’t plot the Watergate break-in. Barack Obama is not fit to tie Richard Nixon’s shoes.

The first sentence is not quite true. In fact the alliance between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China was strained from the beginning. Stalin didn’t really want Mao to take over China. He preferred a weak China divided between the Nationalists and the Communists to a united China that might be a threat on the Russian border. After Stalin died, the Soviet Communist Party under Khrushchev became somewhat more pragmatic while the Chinese Communists under Mao still retained their revolutionary ardor. The Russians became alarmed at Mao’s casual attitude on nuclear war with the rest and were dismayed by the insanity of the Great Leap Forward. Mao thought that Khrushchev and the Russians were appeasing the  West. The alliance ended by 1959 and in 1969  there was a brief border war between the two Communist powers.

Nixon deserves credit for opening relations with China but he hardly did it single-handedly and Mao was just as interested in opening relations with the United States for his own reasons.

 

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Rating the Presidents

February 18, 2013

While shopping at Goodwill yesterday, I came across a book called Presidential Leadership, published by the Wall Street Journal. This book features a collection essays assessing the historical legacy of each of the presidents from George Washington to George W Bush. The writers seem to be conservative commentators, so perhaps the collection has a rightward tilt. Still, I am sure the book will be interesting to read, although I have not had time to do more than skim through the book. Towards the end, after the essays about the presidents are essays about presidential leadership and appendices of various scholars’ attempts to rank the presidents. Since today is President’s Day, I thought I would write a little about the Presidents.

The three Presidents generally ranked the greatest are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. George Washington probably wouldn’t be considered much of a president today. He wasn’t an activist executive and he deferred to Congress. He might be considered a do-nothing president by today’s standards. Still, there is no question that he was one of our greatest presidents. He was the first and he had to work without any clear precedents or guidelines. Abraham Lincoln was also one of the greatest. A lesser man might have given upon the Civil War and let the South go. Lincoln had a clarity of vision that eludes most politicians and was willing to sacrifice his popularity and chances of reelection to do the right thing.

I am not sure Roosevelt deserves to be considered one of the greatest presidents. His New Deal policies probably prolonged the Depression. That was not his intent and he does deserve credit for raising the nation’s morale in a difficult time, yet it has become clear that he really didn’t have any idea what he was doing. Roosevelt was an effective war time leader. In general, he picked the right men for doing the job, especially George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff. His only fault in the handling of that war was his trust of Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt seemed to be unaware that Stalin was just as vicious and evil as Hitler and believed that Stalin could be handled like any other politician. In this, Roosevelt may have been badly advised by the members of his administration who were Communists, or Communist sympathizers. To the extent that Roosevelt was unaware of the treacherous leanings of some of his staff, he deserves the blame for the concessions he made at the Yalta Conference. I also believe that Roosevelt did poorly in running for  a third and then fourth term. He reversed the long standing precedent that a president should only serve two terms. It may well have been that Roosevelt felt that no one else could do the job effectively, but the foundation of a republic rests on the concept that no one man is indispensible. In any event, by 1944 Roosevelt was in failing health and must have know he would not have live to finish another term.

The worst presidents are generally regarded to be Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and James Buchanan. These seem to be fair assessments, except for Warren Harding. He did possess remarkably poor judgment in selecting his subordinates, which led to a series of scandals late in his administration, yet Harding ended Woodrow Wilson’s more egregious civil rights violations, released the anti-war protestors and Socialist that Wilson had jailed, and did his best to return the country to normalcy. I kind of suspect that Harding’s low rankings have as much to do with ending “progressive” policies as any thing else.

I think something similar could be said of Ulysses S. Grant. He also exhibited poor judgement in some of his appointments and there were a series of scandals in his administration. Grant, like Harding, tried to return the country to normalcy after the horrendous Civil War and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. He fought for the rights of the former slaves and used military action to suppress the Ku Klux Klan. He even believed that the Indians should be treated decently.  I think that the low ranking Grant is usually given reflects the ire of Southern historians who were outraged that anyone should defend the Blacks, not to mention Grant’s key role in winning the Civil War.

John F Kennedy is almost certainly the most overrated president. For all his charisma and sympathy from the intellectual class, he didn’t actually do all that much. He does deserve some credit for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it should be remembered that that crisis would not have arisen at all if he had handled the Bay of Pigs invasion. He ought to have either given the rebels his full support or cancelled the operation entirely. By allowing it to go ahead but withholding air support, he assured its failure and made himself look weak and foolish. Kennedy’s reputation would not have been  so favorable if he had not been assassinated. As it is, his ranking has gone steadily downward over the years.

Thomas Jefferson is another overrated president. He was an accomplished man, in many ways, but he was not a very good president. His second term was a disaster.

Richard Nixon is an unusual case. By all respects, he should have been a successful president. He got us out of Viet Nam without actually losing the war. He negotiated the SALT agreement with the Soviet Union and opened up relations with China. Nixon was the president who created the EPA and large scale Affirmative Action. Yet, Nixon is often regarded as a failure. This is, of course, because of the Watergate scandal. Watergate was, in itself, not so large a deal as has often been reported, previous presidents have done far worse. The intense and increasing partisanship in American politics caused the scandal to assume an outsized role and ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation. I wouldn’t regard Nixon as a great president, however. He was at least partly to blame for the enmity held against him.

The greatest president you have never heard of is James K. Polk. He may have been the only president to have actually fulfilled all of his campaign promises. He served only a single term but did more than most presidents have in two terms. Polk expanded the territory of the United States by provoking and winning the Mexican War while negotiating a peaceful settlement with Great Britain over the boundaries of the Oregon Territory.

Another great but forgotten president is Grover Cleveland. He was an honest and strong man who fought to keep the government honest. He favored a strong money policy over those who wanted the government to expand the money supply and create inflation, ostensibly to help the cash poor farmers of the West. He also limited government spending.

Presidential reputations change over time, sometimes due to changing ideas about what a president should be, and sometimes because new information about a president is revealed. I have already noted Kennedy’s declining reputation. It seems that the more one looks beyond the myth of Camelot, the tawdrier the whole thing appears. Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, has become more respected over the years. Eisenhower was a popular president, but the general feeling has been that he was a rather relaxed chief executive who didn’t do much. As more has been learned about his administration, historians have discovered that he was a very active president indeed. Eisenhower was not much concerned with getting credit for his actions and so was underestimated. Another president whose reputation has improved is Harry S. Truman. Truman is well thought of today, but he was a very unpopular president. He left the office with a job approval rating of 22%, lower that Richard Nixon’s and about the same as George W. Bush’s. Somehow, Truman’s blunt, uncompromising personality looks a lot better in hindsight, and history seems to have vindicated his policies on the Cold War. Perhaps the same will be true of Bush.

There is a lot more that I could say about the presidents. I have barely scratched the surface in rating some of the presidents and here are so many that I haven’t even mentioned. This post is starting to get overly long, however, so I think I will end it here. The presidents do make a fascinating subject and I am sure I will find more to right about.

Watergate

June 14, 2012
Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the U...

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.

 


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