Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Future of Nixon

Andrew Sullivan notes that Richard Nixon sometimes didn't kick disabled kids in the face and was a pragmatist on domestic policy and concludes:
This was a criminal who betrayed the core of American democracy, lied to the people, persecuted those dedicated to free speech, ordered robberies and cover-ups, and laid the ground work for some of the best innovations of the time - like the EPA - and the worst - price controls. For one generation he will always be evil. For the next he may be more complicated. Still a crook and an enemy of the Constitution. But complicated.
Well, I can't really argue against "may be," but I very much doubt it.

In the long run, no one is going to remember Nixon for China; they're certainly not going to remember him for the EPA and other laws he accepted from a liberal Congress. Nixon isn't similar to Lyndon Johnson, who really is developing and deserves a "complicated" reputation because we attribute quite a bit of responsibility to him for both the major achievements and disasters of his presidency. The Nixon-era achievements, assuming that they are seen as significant achievements down the road, won't be like that. No one thinks -- or will think -- that Nixon actually cared about the environment, or thinks of him as having primary responsibility for most of these domestic policy enactments. To the contrary: the odds are pretty good that many currently overstate Nixon's domestic policy record because they like playing up the contrast with contemporary Republicans. That distinction may not matter much to future historians. Indeed, a somewhat similar vogue for Nixon's foreign policy matched the peak of Ronald Reagan's latter-day Cold War presidency, but has now (I think) faded, so that now we're just as likely to blame Nixon for his Vietnam policies as we are to praise him for detente and China.

No, specialists in diplomacy and Cold War history will debate Nixon's contributions to those things, but for everyone else Watergate is going to overshadow all that. And rightly so.

He's going to be remembered as the crooked president who was forced to resign because otherwise he would have been impeached and convicted. Complicated? Sure; all humans are complicated, and Nixon surely at least as much as anyone. But his legacy as a politician won't be especially complicated.


  1. The rabid anti-Semite thing doesn't help, but that probably doesn't matter as much to everyone.

  2. Presidents are remembered for very little:

    Hoover - Great depression

    Roosevelt - New Deal, WWII, wheelchair, cigarette holder

    Truman - Better than we thought at the time.

    Eisenhower - A General. Calm & steady

    Kennedy - Young & handsome & stylish. Beautiful wife. Was shot.

    Johnson - Vietnam. Great Society.

    Nixon - A square. Watergate.

    Ford - Who?

    Carter - Ineffective and lame.

    Reagan - Genial and vague. Changed stuff.

    Bush I - Better than we thought at the time.

    Clinton - Monica Lewinsky. Good economy. Was impeached.

    Bush - 9/11. Retarded wars. Not so smart and manipulated by evil Dick Cheney.

    Obama - Black (obviously) and to be determined

  3. Yes and I'd also say the whole "reassessing Presidents" thing strikes me as highly over rated. It's true that some Presidents do get reassessed as time goes on, but this is not very common and it tends to happen relatively quickly after they leave office. It's true that Truman has been reassessed but even by the 60's he was a cultural icon and was welcome to do things like meet with Kennedy during the '60 campaign and even got invited to the bill signing ceremony for Medicare. Clinton was panned in the media immediately after he left office, but by 2005 he was very much on the rebound. Sure there are always intellectuals at partisan think tanks trying to show how the worst guys on their side aren't really that bad, which is really just the other side of the coin of showing why the best guys on the other side were actually worse. Just as there will always be people trying to write against the grain essays in The Atlantic to show how-everything-you-thought-about-blank-was-wrong. That doesn't mean the public's or history in general's views have changed. Hoover was thought to be a terrible president while in office and despite lots of conservatives trying to prove he was really actually good nothing has changed. He was viewed as being terrible in the 60's, terrible in the 80s and terrible today. Because he was a very bad President.

  4. Nixon seemed genuinely pretty moderate to liberal on domestic policy. He wasn't faking that. But yeah, he wasn't a policy *innovator* when it came to the environment and domestic issues. He was just ideologically and politically comfortable with outsourcing those issues to the Democratic Congress.

  5. Extending tom's list backwards:

    Martin Van Buren -- ?

    Zachary Taylor -- ?

    Millard Fillmore -- ?

    James Buchanan -- preceding Lincoln

    Benjamin Harrison -- ?

    And so on. I mean, yeah, all these guys have Wikipedia pages, and there are historians who study and write about their presidencies, but the point is that most presidents are essentially forgotten beyond a certain time horizon. Stephen Skowronek's theory of presidential "regimes" suggests that it's likely to be only the presidents who found new "regimes" who end up "going down in history." Nixon was a Republican operating within a Democratic / New Deal regime that had not yet run its course, so in these big-picture terms he was inconsequential. If his major foreign-policy initiative, detente, had continued to the end of the Cold War (or if the Cold War had happened to end in the mid-'70s) he might get credit for "winning" the Cold War. But his own party rejected detente, so there goes that. Which leaves Watergate. Not a pretty story.

  6. Harding was a pretty successful president. He cleaned up Wilson's mess and righted the economy. What's he remembered for?

    1. A mistress 30 years his junior, and a tryst with her in a White House closet.

    2. Harding is remembered as one of the worst presidents, ever; in the "failure" category (Grant has now been upgraded), consistently, by historians, over the course of decades. But he sure looked presidential.

  7. Not to mention the fact that Nixon directly ordered the break-in to Daniel Elsberg's psychiatrist's office. Also he ordered the Brookings institution to be bombed, and the American journalist Jack Anderson assassinated, which G. Gordon Liddy set about seriously planning. There's so much evil in Watergate
    that 's being forgotten.

    1. Certainly yes on Brookings, but the other two...AFAIK, he did not directly order either of them.


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