In a number of decades that saw some very strange men occupy the White House, historian Stephen Graubard wrote, Richard Nixon may well have been the strangest.
But why has King Richard – the subject of more psychoanalysis than any of his fellow presidents – clung to public view, now that two generations have come of age never having witnessed Cuba, Cambodia, or Kent State, let alone seen the mass hysteria of the ’70s that this man abused so well?
It’s because Richard Nixon embodied America’s divided soul, and no doubt continues to haunt the proceedings. Seen purely as a rags-to-riches story, he was every bit the American Dream: the Quaker boy from a dying lemon ranch in Yorba Linda; the son of poor, pious grocers; two of his brothers dying of tuberculosis; whiling away most of World War II playing poker in the navy.
Then comes the rise to infamy – baiting closet commies in the age of McCarthy, the slander he directed at cleaner and gentler opponents in Congress and the Senate, and the clash of egos between crusty old President Eisenhower and foulmouthed Vice-President Nixon. When reporters asked Eisenhower what major decisions his deputy had taken, the general said, ‘If you give me a week, I might think of one.’
There’s also his first failure: Nixon’s soul-crushing loss to JFK for the presidency, in among the closest elections in history. Compared to his opponent, Nixon fought honourably (something he knew not to try before, and learned never to repeat since). Those beautiful Kennedy boys, assisted by less-than-beautiful machine bosses like Daley in Chicago and Lyndon Johnson in Texas, almost certainly rigged it.
To hear the press tell it though, the Kennedys were the royal family, and Nixon their evil foil. As journalist and devoted enemy Hunter S. Thompson put it,
For years I’ve regarded (Nixon’s) existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.
True, this is the lore of Dick Nixon, but it would be foolish to overlook his key talent: mastering the art of division. Per one biographer, ‘He is so many American stories all at once, he consumes so much of our culture…the poor kid who made good; the bad kid who got caught…the loser who won, the winner who lost.’
It was an ability he’d exploit to no end. Rejected by the Ivy League palaces he applied to, turned down by New York’s glittering law firms, defeated for the presidency by a pampered Boston Brahmin and his corrupt-as-sin daddy, Nixon fuelled the resentments of the base he led about as much as he personified them.
And few men could convert self-pity to success the way he could. When first hit with allegations of corruption in the ’50s, he listed all his assets on TV: there was even a sickly sweet tribute to his daughter’s cocker spaniel, Checkers. ‘No matter what they say,’ he said, ‘we’re going to keep it.’ Thought by elite columnists to be among the most humiliating experiences the nation had to bear, it was a PR hit across the heartland.
It had to be. Reviling or revering Richard Nixon, wrote one historian, had become ‘a key seam of the American divide’ long before he ever scaled the presidency. It only made sense, then, that when Nixon did win the top job, it was amid national trauma: 1968 saw war, race riots, and gunshots for Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King. In a wonderful inauguration speech, Nixon promised to heal the country’s soul. He was lying.
In office at last, he pandered to what he deemed the Great Silent Majority, preying on a constituency that was white, middle-class, and fed up with a counterculture that had spun out of control. In creating that constituency, King Richard went for broke. He was a spiteful mirror to the many who, as one commentator put it, were neither charming Kennedys, nor privileged Bushes, nor slick Clintons: the Nixon voter wanted nothing more but to give those dirty hippies a kicking. Their president was happy to oblige.
If only it could have ended there, but Nixon’s unravelling had long been written in the stars. When LBJ called him a Spanish horse, ‘who runs faster than anyone for the first nine lengths, and then turns around and runs backwards,’ it was a prophecy from a man that died years before Watergate. Tricky Dick’s reelection bagged the widest margin of victory ever recorded for a Republican, and yet it gave him not a second of peace. Self-destruction soon followed.
Domestically, Nixon’s Keynesian economics and environmental reforms wouldn’t have been attempted by a wide-eyed liberal. His efforts at desegregation also went unsung, if by those that never forgot how he’d exploited racial dread to win the South. He hired writers to observe him and record instances of male toughness. He indulged in the wildest anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and spoke of ‘the Jews’ in phrases that were racist and fearful. As for gender, the Leader of the Free World was recorded saying, ’I’m not for women, frankly, in any job. I don’t want any of them around. Thank God we don’t have any in the cabinet.’
But it was foreign policy that was Richard III’s overweening passion, steep though he did it with his own persona; adoring China-aligned thugs like Yahya and Ceausescu, and launching into filthy tirades about democrats as eccentric as Trudeau (‘I had been called worse things by better people,’ said Trudeau) and as false as Indira (‘We really slobbered over that old witch,’ huffed Nixon).
On the latter note, the president’s adoration for Pakistan went some distance beyond the humdrum of the Cold War, unmatched by any other man in the Oval Office. ‘Pakistan is a country I want to do everything for,’ he had said as early as the ’50s. His commitment to the Islamic Republic persisted all the way to 1971, and climaxed with the most wrenching denouement in Pakistan’s history – one Islamabad has yet to come to terms with, or face up to.
As is also well-known, Nixon would mount massacres in Cambodia and withdraw from Vietnam. Even so many years later, the sheer scale of humanity erased by the bombs that rained on ‘Indochina’ renders his administration both inhumane and unforgivable. Desperate to forget how Saigon had fallen – and to drown out the screams still coming out of Phnom Penh – America hailed Nixon’s trip to Beijing as the greatest thing to happen to foreign affairs since, well, Kennedy: here was a former McCarthyist that shook hands with Mao, and ended up shaking the world.
But the sheen soon came off at home. Watergate destroyed the president for good, a third-rate burglary per the president’s war criminal sidekick, Henry Kissinger. Having gotten away with so much for so long, Nixon would be undone by a bunch of sad saps breaking into an office building that kept the Democrats’ papers; a squalid ending to a surreal life.
Yet the same question remains asked of such leaders: do they hold any relevance today? Nixon, and to a greater extent Reagan, fathered the modern-day Republican Party, manoeuvring the diehard Democratic South into an unthinkable realignment with GOP ideals of law and order, world prestige, and status affirmation for worried whites.
Speaking for a silent majority was Nixon’s final act of division, a mutant strain that rejected both Lincoln’s better angels and Johnson’s Great Society, fracturing the United States across lines of race, wealth, and social status, and creating the blue state-red state polarity that his successors continue to exploit. Not least, he left the presidency a greatly weakened institution, adding to people’s faithlessness in government. It would take Ronald Reagan, a mass manipulator in his own right, to erase the gloom of Poor Richard from nation and party.
Ironically though, it seems difficult to imagine an entire generation of grubby neocons – including its biggest monsters, Rumsfeld and Cheney – coming to prominence without catching the eye of Nixon and his successor, Jerry Ford, America’s last accidental president.
Meanwhile, the same pop culture Tricky Dick despised has also embraced him, if as a symbol of surly adult authority, as it has embraced the over-the-edge era he became one with. Nixon’s ghost makes cameos in kid’s cartoons, pop histories, and dystopias set in a reality where he never resigned, with the rest of the universe much worse for it.
His last day in office saw a tearful speech: ‘My mother was a saint,’ and, ‘Others may hate you, but they don’t win, unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.’ Inconsolable at his wife’s funeral in 1992, he succumbed to popular expectation for the first time, dying less than a year later. With fitting strangeness, it was perhaps Nixon’s final, awkward, intrinsic symbol of the dual victory – as he departed in disgrace from the White House lawns – that continues to inspire rage and resentment for the many Great Silent Majorities to come.