Anniversary of a Diplomatic Coup–And a Meme

In addition to the Goldwater nomination in 1964, this day also marked Richard M. Nixon’s surprise announcement in 1971 that he would be making a trip to the People’s Republic of China.

Aside from representing a very important event in diplomatic history (and a major twist in the Cold War), Nixon’s speech birthed a meme. Nixon-goes-to-China would soon represent shorthand for the theory that only politicians acting against type were capable of achieving big bipartisan policy breakthroughs. It was later applied to Ronald Reagan’s brief and unsuccessful espousal of a “zero option” in strategic arms negotiations with the Soviet Union; Bill Clinton working with Republicans on welfare reform and a balanced federal budget; and George W. Bush expanding Medicare and supporting an anti-AIDS initiative in Africa, among other events. In this hyper-polarized era, there are few if any occasions for using the term, though some have tentatively applied it to Obama’s offer of “entitlement reform” concessions or to Marco Rubio’s leadership on comprehensive immigration reform, neither of which has worked out real well.

Nixon, of course, pulled a number of shockers on his conservative “base” supporters, including wage and price controls (implemented with mixed results) and a guaranteed minimum income (unsuccessful, though without missing a beat Nixon’s 1972 campaign savaged George McGovern for embracing the same basic idea). By such means did he richly earn the “Tricky Dick” appellation, before giving us the mother of all memes, the (fill-in-the-blank)-gate.

I distinctly remember, though I cannot find a link for, a National Review reaction to one or more of Nixon’s surprises, which included a ditty to the tune of White Christmas that concluded:

I’m dreaming I am Disraeli

Watching constituents turn white.

May your TV picture be bright

I’ll be in your living room tonight.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

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.