“Success is never final and failure is never fatal.”
—Winston Churchill, one of Richard Nixon’s favorite aphorisms
Perhaps Hannah Arendt was right as Stephen E. Ambrose remarks: the problem with the American presidency is that you are both the most powerful man in the world and the leader with the least power. Maybe that is why the job is simultaneously so difficult and so seductive, so exhilarating and so despairing, so symbolically exalted and yet so much about power-grabbing. When Richard Nixon assumed the presidency in 1969, he ordered the tennis courts removed from the White House. When he left office in August 1974, the courts were still there. Presidents come and go but the bureaucracy, which wanted the courts just where they were, endureth forever. On the other hand, in 1969 and 1970, Nixon was able to bomb Cambodia without much interference from the permanent government and wiretap journalists and government officials in the interest of stopping leaks. Maybe if Nixon had made getting rid of the tennis courts a covert operation, he might have succeeded. Thank goodness, there is no shortage of monumentally egotistical people of achievement who want this damnable job of being America’s number one celebrity, its wisest head, its chief voice, its deceitful operative, and its most execrated fool and villain.
In his Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, biographer Ambrose writes this about Nixon’s successful 1972 reelection:
“The two victories, by the Republicans in the presidential race and by the Democrats in the congressional races, dominated American politics over the following twenty-two months, a period characterized by more bitterness, divisiveness, and pure hatred than any since Reconstruction. The unanticipated, the unwelcome, and the unimaginable became the norm.”
Ambrose continues by explaining how this “unhealthy situation” came to be, which reasons included: “… because of Nixon’s determination to take on not only the Democrats but the basic structure of American government; and because of Nixon’s deep-rooted, long-standing anger at his opponents, real and imagined, which led him to ill-considered and ill-tempered outbursts, which in turn goaded his opponents into extremism, thus raising the stress on the already badly battered body politic.”
What this immediately brings to mind is Donald Trump, whose situation resembles Nixon’s in several ways including a volcanic loathing of the press, an attempt to reorganize or reconfigure the American government so that he can, like Nixon, get around the bureaucrats who oppose him, the “deep state”; his intense hatred of his enemies as he tries to badger, belittle, and undo them with snarky, immature tweets, and their extremist responses to him where they vow self-righteously to destroy him no matter the cost. Both sides today, Democrat and Republican, are trapped in a rhetoric of invective that somehow vouches for their sincerity, their authenticity, their sheer will “to save the republic” from each other, a rhetoric that endears them to their constituencies as it heightens their hatreds. As one founding father put it, politics is nothing more than the organization of hatred.
If Trump has been a wrecking ball, Nixon was something of a demolition crew himself which is what got him in so much trouble: the need to destroy his enemies, not merely defeat or neutralize them.
The “scorched earth” partisan politics of the United States today have their 20th century antecedent in Nixon. In the end, Nixon lost the support of his party and of his base and was forced to resign; Trump has yet to lose the support of either but of course he might. The presidential election is still a year away and a year is an eternity in politics. Nixon was insecure, paranoid (but his enemies were real enough), intellectually capable, and cunning. Trump is insecure, cunning, and relies on his anti-intellectualism to connect with his supporters. Trump, as I have said elsewhere, is the bad boy of American politics, the trickster, the American hustler; Nixon was the scheming auteur, the tormented lapsed Quaker boy, the masochistic tough guy, the “iron ass” overachiever. “You have to stay in the arena,” Nixon once said after he left the presidency, “Even when you’re down and bleeding and being kicked in the nuts, you have to get up and fight back. You can always do it. And when you feel you can’t go on, you must do it” (Pipes, 94). I suppose the difference between the two men can be explained in this way: Nixon wanted to be a football player and thought the game possessed a unique form of virtue; Trump, on the other hand, wanted “merely” to own an NFL football franchise and wrecked an entire professional league in an attempt to get one. The difference between Trump now and Nixon in the throes of Watergate is that Trump has successfully (to this point) convinced his base that he fighting against their disfranchisement as he fights against the Democrats’ and liberals’ attempt at “a bloodless coup”; Nixon seemed, in his desperation, finally and haplessly, only concerned with saving himself from the epic infamy of surely being tossed from office.
If Trump has been a wrecking ball, Nixon was something of a demolition crew himself which is what got him in so much trouble: the need to destroy his enemies, not merely defeat or neutralize them. With Watergate, Nixon proved himself to be, well, not a ham sandwich, as it were, as a grand jury was ready, even eager, to indict him as it had his underlings, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, and H. R. Haldeman, who all went to prison. (The old saying is that prosecutors can get a grand jury to indict even a ham sandwich.) Nixon could have been charged with 36 counts of obstruction of justice but special prosecutor Leon Jaworski vigorously talked the jury out of it, fearing a constitutional crisis over indicting a sitting president, that Nixon might, as commander-in-chief, surround the White House with troops. Considering Nixon’s frame of mind at the time, the idea was not entirely far-fetched. Jaworski proved that prosecutors can un-indict ham sandwiches too. Nixon became the unindicted coconspirator.
Nixon wound up severely damaging the office of the presidency, his party, and, as Shoeless Joe Jackson of the 1919 Black Sox scandal did with baseball, destroying the faith of at least 50 million people in their own government. President Gerald Ford’s pardon, occurring after Nixon resigned and which Nixon alternately demanded and pleaded for in the throes of his physical and mental breakdown, almost certainly cost Ford the 1976 presidential election against Democratic Party opponent Jimmy Carter. The pardon, engineered in good measure by Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, was massively unpopular. I have no idea how much detritus Trump may leave in the wake of his four-or-eight-year presidential run but Nixon definitely left more than his fair share.
There have been several accounts of Nixon’s life after his ignominious departure from the presidency including Ambrose’s Ruin and Recovery, the third volume of his massive biography of Nixon and Robert Sam Anson’s Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon (1984). (Anson’s book is incomplete because, clearly, it does not cover Nixon until his death.) What Kasey S. Pipes’s After the Fall offers is his access to Nixon’s post-presidential papers (the first scholar to be granted such access by the Nixon family), including such items as Nixon’s own personal diary, the diary of his daughter Tricia Nixon Cox, and numerous letters to various American politicians and world leaders. What Pipes learned from all of this is that Nixon was a far greater influence on the Reagan administration than many realized and probably more than Reagan could bear, as it happened. Perhaps the most trenchant observation Nixon made to Reagan when David Stockman, Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget director, publicly disavowed supply-side economics, Reaganomics, as it was popularly called. Nixon wrote to Reagan, “the problem all conservative administrations face is that those who are loyal are not bright and those who are bright are not loyal.” (153)
What Pipes learned from all of this is that Nixon was a far greater influence on the Reagan administration than many realized and probably more than Reagan could bear, as it happened.
But the key word here is conservative. Pipes’s book works hard at making Nixon-in-winter a true conservative as he emerged from his worst days of physical and emotional wreckage after leaving Washington to become a kind of consul without portfolio, the eminence grise of the Republican Party. (He was still invited on numerous occasions to visit world leaders, especially the Chinese.) Nixon as conservative is interesting. It must be remembered that Nixon was never liked very much by the movers and shakers of the conservative movement. William Rusher, publisher of National Review for over 30 years, utterly loathed Nixon, thinking him an opportunist. William F. Buckley supported Nixon on the principle that a sensible conservative voted for the most conservative politician on the ballot who stood the best chance of winning but was always wary of him. GOP insiders attributed Nixon’s failure to win the presidency in 1960 to his selling out to Nelson Rockefeller and the eastern liberal establishment, thus compromising his ability to run as a true conservative. But in order to maintain some semblance of his conservative bona fides, he could not run as a liberal either without completely repudiating his reputation as the unrelenting Cold Warrior and Commie Hunter. He wound up running in such a way as to please neither faction. When Nixon did win the presidency in 1968, he disappointed conservatives at every turn: launching the Environmental Protection Agency, mandating Affirmative Action through the revised Philadelphia Plan and Title VII that led to the doubling of the budget and the tripling of the staff of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 1969 and 1972, initiating détente with the Soviet Union, opening Communist China to the west (when conservatives did not want the country recognized in any way), pulling out of Vietnam under the laughable slogan, “Peace with Honor,” which produced a bloody peace and no honor. He made his sops to conservatives: he had barnstorming for Barry Goldwater in 1964 (unlike Goldwater, he supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act), endorsed “law and order” (including the war on illegal drugs) and utilized the southern strategy that Goldwater’s unsuccessful presidential run in 1964 made possible of attracting disaffected white voters who suffered from “civil rights and let’s help out the put-upon Negro” fatigue, although the only thing he explicitly said to white southerners was that he opposed busing for racial balance. Nixon astutely realized that the parties were realigning largely by exchanging their dissidents: white southern conservatives going to the Republicans, white northern liberals going to the Democrats. It might be said he used conservatives more than he believed in them. As he once said, “The far right kooks are just like the nuts on the left. They’re door bell ringers and balloon blowers [and] they turn out to vote.” But no Republican candidate, he believed, can stray too far from them and hope to survive.
It must be remembered that Nixon was never liked very much by the movers and shakers of the conservative movement. William Rusher, publisher of National Review for over 30 years, utterly loathed Nixon, thinking him an opportunist. William F. Buckley supported Nixon on the principle that a sensible conservative voted for the most conservative politician on the ballot who stood the best chance of winning but was always wary of him.
Pipes’s book is interesting surely with vivid accounts of Nixon’s near death soon after he left office, the Nixon-David Frost interviews, his overwhelming debts, his moments of desperation, his persistence in repairing his career and his reputation. It is not surprising that he nearly broke under the strain; a less determined and a less shrewd man would have broken entirely. Nixon amazingly had a second act. He was nothing if not sheer determination and will, mixed with ample amounts of cunning and self-pity.
As Pipes writes, “ … in the first ten years following Watergate, Nixon had done more than just survive as a former president—he had unknowingly established a template for future ex-presidents to follow. Before Nixon, former presidents in the modern era mostly stayed behind the scenes. Truman had returned to Missouri and Ike split his time between his farm in Gettysburg and summers in Palm Springs. Neither of them made many public appearances or waded into public issues.
“But Nixon, largely because he wanted to rehabilitate his name—and in any case was never one for retirement—chose a different path. He made money from delivering speeches and writing books. He gave interviews with the media in which he tried to shape public opinion on important national issues. He became something of an elder statesman. The Nixon template is the template used by former presidents to this day.” (170)
Nixon undoubtedly created the post-presidential career and even showed that a disgraced president can wind up living large. Only in America, as the saying goes. But there is still the key word, conservative. Regnery is a famous conservative publishing house and this book seemed very much an effort to make Nixon something of a conservative hero. (If the book had not done this, Regnery almost certainly would not have published it.) Pipes constantly points out how various of Nixon’s books supported some sort of conservative doctrine or principle, how his speeches and letters did the same. Pipes is neither wrong nor mendacious in doing this but there is an abiding sense that Nixon, a tremendously complex, devious, and contradictory politician and person, is being simplified. No man so dark and troubled with such admirable possibilities and such spotted ethics as Nixon can be quite so easily restored in the partisan light of a twilit heroism.