The 25th anniversary last week of President Richard Nixon’s resignation brought back a flood of confused recollections from those troubled late years of the mid-1970s. A new poll showed not surprisingly that a large number of Americans are fuzzy about exactly what Watergate was all about, and there appears to be some creeping symmetry from the Clinton impeachment experience, with a plurality of Americans now saying Nixon should have stuck it out and fought the charges against him.
Watergate will forever cast a shadow over Nixon’s legacy, and distort our understanding of the character of his administration. Liberals then and now revile Nixon-an attitude which he reciprocated. There are many sources of this animosity, going back to his role in the exposure of Alger Hiss’s espionage in 1948 and his “Red-baiting” campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950. Liberals would never forgive these transgressions against good will and good taste. “Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter,” journalists Louis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page wrote in their fine book An American Melodrama, “there is no doubt that there exists in America a durable reservoir of hostility toward Richard Nixon.” Quite aside from the personal animosity Nixon generated, there was also an undercurrent that Nixon’s election in 1968 was a fluke, that his administration was somehow illegitimate, because, after all, the Democrats are the natural ruling party.
Nixon was only the second Republican president since Hoover, and the first, Eisenhower, was discounted because his election was seen as a reflection of his personal popularity (Democrats had wanted him to run as their candidate before Ike declared himself a Republican), and not as a sign that Republicans had genuine appeal to a majority of voters. Even Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had urged Democrats in 1967 to work with thoughtful conservatives, shared this condescension toward Republicans: “The Republicans cannot govern on any sustained basis in America. They simply do not have the intellectual or moral basis on which to build consensus. . . They had no program, far less a mandate to put one in effect. They had almost no thinkers, almost no writers. . . Its periods in office have been and are likely to continue to be little more than interludes brought on by Democratic internal dissidence.”
It is largely because of these hardened personal and political positions that conservatives then and now have tended to rally to Nixon’s cause while liberals maintain a blind hatred for him. In fact the Nixon public policy record would justify reversing these allegiances; any other president who compiled Nixon’s domestic and foreign record would be regarded as standing firmly in the liberal progressive tradition. Johnson has gone down in the history books as the big spender for social welfare programs, yet federal spending grew faster during Nixon’s tenure than during Johnson’s. It was under Nixon that social spending came to exceed defense spending for the first time. Social spending soared from $55 billion in 1970 (Nixon’s first budget) to $132 billion in 1975, from 28 percent of the federal budget when LBJ left office to 40 percent of the budget by the time Nixon left in 1974. While Nixon would criticize and attempt to reform welfare, he nonetheless approved
massive increases in funding for other Great Society programs such as the Model Cities program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of the changes in spending policies that Nixon supported, such as automatic cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients and other entitlement programs, contributed to runaway spending trends in successive decades. Federal spending for the arts, which went mostly to cultural elites who hated Nixon, quadrupled. Economist Herbert Stein, who served on Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, summed up this dubious record: “The administration that was against expanding the budget expanded it greatly; the administration that was determined to fight inflation ended by having a large amount of it.”
The explosion in spending was matched by an equally dramatic explosion in federal regulation-from an administration that regarded itself as pro-business. The number of pages in the Federal Register (the roster of federal rules and regulations) grew only 19 percent under Johnson, but a staggering 121 percent under Nixon. In civil rights, Nixon expanded the regime of “affirmative action” racial quotas and set-asides far beyond what Johnson had done. In other words, Nixon consolidated the administrative state of the Great Society in much the same way that President Eisenhower (for whom Nixon served as Vice President) consolidated the New Deal. Ronald Reagan would run and govern as much against the legacy of Nixon as he would the legacy of the Great Society, and it was a number of Nixon’s administrative creations that would cause Reagan the most difficulty during his White House years. Yet at the same time Nixon deserves the credit for assembling the new political coalition
of working class and ethnic voters who would later become known as “Reagan Democrats.” Nixon was the first Republican to win a majority of working class, Catholic, and labor union voters, as well as voters with only a grade school education. In the political sense Nixon played Moses to Reagan’s Joshua. This is Nixon’s greatest paradox.
The key to understanding the Nixon paradox, several biographers have pointed out, may lie in the 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Moynihan recalls giving Nixon a list of the ten best political biographies that he thought Nixon should read, which list included Lord Charnwood’s Lincoln, Alan Bullock’s Hitler, and Robert Blake’s Disraeli. Five weeks later Nixon said to Moynihan, “I’ve read them all. Now, about Disraeli…” Nixon identified with Disraeli on several levels. Disraeli, born a Jew in Christian England, knew that he was never quite “respectable.” “There was something about Disraeli,” Robert Blake wrote, “which those who constitute that mysterious but nevertheless recognizable entity, ’the establishment,’ could never quite countenance. . . The charge of insincerity and lack of principle has often been made against Disraeli.” Like Nixon, Disraeli had risen to the summit of British politics after early success and promise in public office
had ended abruptly, with his prospects seemingly ruined. Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, once summarized Disraeli’s life as “Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete triumph.” Having been down and out after losing two elections within two years, Nixon could identify with Disraeli’s experience. Blake’s description of how Disraeli revived his and his party’s political fortunes when both were at low ebb neatly tracked Nixon’s experience in the mid-1960s: “Disraeli exploited this situation with cautious adroitness, mending the party machine, waiting shrewdly upon events, and above all attacking Gladstonianism for its radical implications. The old feuds in the party were forgotten . . . and Disraeli became . . . the leader around whom moderate opinion began to crystallize.”
But the real attraction for Nixon was intellectual. Disraeli was what would be called in today’s oxymoron a “progressive conservative.” Disraeli had been the prime mover of the Reform Bill of 1867, which widened the franchise beyond the landholding class. It was a bold reform that the Liberal party had dared not attempt when it held power. Conservative policy, Disraeli thought, was the policy of true progress. Disraeli is thought to have attracted much of the newly enfranchised middle class to the ranks of the Tory party. The political lesson was not lost on Nixon. “You know very well,” he said to Moynihan, “that it is the Tory men with liberal policies who have enlarged democracy.” This could easily serve as the motto for Nixon’s first term.
To be sure, Nixon had many conservatives in his cabinet and on the White House staff. Some of his key aides and appointees included figures who would play central roles in the Reagan administration, including George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, Martin Anderson, and Pat Buchanan. And many of Nixon’s political instincts were straight Republican chamber-of-commerce style conservatism. But the more dominant intellectual side of Nixon yearned to transcend the conventional categories. “I am an intellectual, too,” Nixon told a task force of scholars he assembled in New York after the election to advise him on social policy-a group, Nixon knew, among whom very few had voted for him. Theodore White recalled his first meeting with Nixon before the 1968 campaign: “He’d been reading some things recently by this fellow Moynihan, for example-very good stuff; did I know Moynihan and what did I think of him?” So it came as no surprise that one of Nixon’s early staff appointments was
the ubiquitous Moynihan to chair an Urban Affairs Council, which Nixon intended to be the equivalent in stature, importance, and function to the National Security Council. “Moynihan,” Herbert Stein observed, “was Nixon’s soaring kite reaching out for the liberal chic Eastern establishment, whose respect Nixon did not have but wanted.” Moynihan was to be the Henry Kissinger of domestic policy. Though Moynihan had been a thoughtful critic of the Great Society, he remained a committed champion of government social programs in general. “We may well have been the most progressive administration on domestic issues that has ever been formed,” Moynihan later commented. “It was amazing what he [Nixon] would say yes to. . . It is not likely that the Nixon Administration will ever be credited for what it tried to do.” When Moynihan wrote these words in 1973 he could have no idea how thoroughly Watergate would vindicate his judgment.
Nixon attempted to reverse course at the outset of his ill-fated second term, and set himself to the herculean task of taming the bureaucracy and getting control of federal spending. He brought to the effort the same dogged determination he employed in all of his political endeavors. Perhaps he might have vindicated the trust and support conservatives had given him. We shall never know; the attempt was strangled in its cradle by the unfolding Watergate scandal. It might be viewed as both the great tragedy of Nixon and his great character weakness. Given the intent of his second term, the liberalism of his first term seems more to have been an attempt at appeasement with liberalism. But Nixon was too thoughtful a student of history (as well as an admirer of Churchill) to believe that appeasement of your enemy can work. Nixon’s liberal domestic policy inclinations therefore remain his greatest mystery.
Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center.