The Tricky One at 100

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon. You will not hear much hagiography–certainly nothing like the shrines being erected and blessed on the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth–and that’s for reasons other than Nixon’s unique status as the only president to resign from office. Even at his peaks of popularity, Nixon never inspired much affection. Most Democrats hated him with an intensity that the similar disdain for George W. Bush never came close to reaching. Republicans, if they loved him at all, loved him for the enemies he made, particularly when he defeated and humiliated them. And nobody has much of an incentive to deal with his policy legacy. Liberals don’t want to give him credit. Honest conservatives ought to view him as one of the architects of the Big Government they deplore:

Many of Nixon’s marquee accomplishments would make today’s Republican rank and file apoplectic. He signed a bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency, proposed universal health care and supported an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. He even imposed wage and price controls.

He also supported a federally guaranteed annual income for all Americans, affirmative action programs, and deliberate use of fiscal policy to goose a struggling economy (“We’re all Keynesians now,” he famously said, echoing an earlier quote from Milton Friedman). He also appointed the author of Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court.

But it’s worth remembering that at the time conservatives were by no means disdainful of Nixon. He was lifted to the vice presidency by Eisenhower in 1952 in part as a more conservative (and younger) ticket-balancer, after he thrilled conservatives with his successful assault on Alger Hiss. He loyally campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964 when many other Republicans ran for cover. By the time of his successful presidential campaign in 1968, he was able to head off a right-wing convention challenge from Ronald Reagan thanks to steady support from southern conservatives like Strom Thurmond. After many of the heresies mentioned above, he drew a conservative primary challenge from John Ashbrook in 1972 (mostly based on unhappiness with Nixon’s strategic arms reduction negotiations with the Soviet Union), but crushed it instantly, even as many conservatives cheered the culture-war he and his vice-president, the soon-to-be-disgraced bribe-taker, Spiro Agnew, were waging against godless liberals and “biased media” and hippies and those people.

Even when he was disgraced and faced impeachment, many conservatives stuck with Nixon, exemplified by Indiana Congressman Earl Langrebe, who memorably said:

Don’t confuse me with the facts. I have a closed mind…. I’m going to stick with my President even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.

So on his would-be 100th birthday everybody should take just a moment to reconsider this repellent but fascinating man’s legacy. If you haven’t read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, you really, really should; after that you might want to take on Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes, which among other things deals with Nixon’s proper place in the ideological firmament.

I know a lot of readers of this blog are old enough to have very sharp memories of the Nixon years. Please feel free to share them in the comment thread, as we give The Tricky One the last word (from his famous 1962 presser after losing the California gubernatorial race):

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.