We don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore

July 28, 2008



By Tony Walther

It’s often said that everyone remembers where he or she was when Kennedy was shot or on 9/11.

I do, certainly, but I also remember my car radio being on during the Watergate hearings that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. And I remember sitting in the living room and watching Nixon give his resignation speech.

I was never a Nixon fan, but have come to at least understand something more about him through the years. And those two events trigger memories in my mind that have nothing to do with him, but instead my own life and its events, but I don’t want to go into that, except to say that maybe it reminds me of the beginnings of an adult life I have lived that had no real planning. Nixon, on the other hand, was a man with a plan, win elections at all costs and get power. He did that, then was forced to give up the power, lost his prestige for awhile, and then gained it back, at least to some extent, before he died.

What brought this to mind, was that I checked out a DVD of an A&E Biography episode of Richard Nixon from the library the other day. It was a reasonably good summary of his life, telling some of the good and some of the bad. I guess you could say he was kind of like that girl in the nursery rhyme, when he was good, he was, well, pretty good, and when he was bad, he was very, very, bad.

Actually, I followed most of Nixon’s political career from the time I was just a little tyke and he was vice president of the United States, through it all, including his humiliatingly unsuccessful run for governor of California, the one in which he made the cry baby ending with “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” The biography piece made me understand his sentiments a little bit (no one, especially the press, liked him or gave him an even break). Far from ending his political career, as many thought at the time, it actually may have helped it. From then on anyone who was suspicious of what they felt was an elitist, too liberal media, could identify with pull-yourself-up from- your-own-bootstraps Dick Nixon. He was the hard-working young man, son of equally hard-working, self-supporting parents, who had their own small business. He was among the top in his class, but could not afford to go to Harvard, even though he received a scholarship – living expenses would be too much.

He lost one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history to Jack Kennedy, who was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth and never had to work at a real job (had the handy trust fund), and was handsome to boot.

But both Nixon and Kennedy served in the U.S. Congress together and probably had more in common than not – they were reportedly even friends. They were both World War II veterans, both having served in the Pacific theater. While Nixon served ably as a supply officer, Kennedy commanded a PT boat and may have turned a mishap into a heroic adventure (thanks to the influence of his father) chronicled in print and film, PT 109. Some say it was pure bravery and others just a screw up.

I was too young to have known about Nixon when he was running for congress and then the U.S. Senate. I know he made his reputation as a communist baiter, accusing opponents of being either communists or communist sympathizers. He of course gained fame in the Alger Hiss case, going after a state department employee with accusations of communist espionage. Hiss did eventually do some time on perjury charges. I always heard the story of how he tarred Democratic opponent Helen Douglas in a race for the U.S. Senate as a communist sympathizer. Come to find out, what was left out, is that some in her own party had tagged her with being a communist sympathizer in the primary. Nixon picked up on that tactic and ran with it.

I watched the Kennedy-Nixon debates, but the only thing I really remember is that both seemed to pretty much say the same thing, and they vowed to defend the islands of Quemoy and Matsu against the Red Chinese. Kennedy was more handsome, folks thought (and Nixon was pale from a bout of flu or something). And Kennedy was a smoother talker. But Nixon could give a fairly good political speech and debate performance himself (in fact it is said that listeners on radio thought he won the debates).

And even earlier than that, I now recall, I saw him go toe to toe with the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev in the famous Kitchen Debate. He certainly got the best of that, grinning, country-bumpkin looking fat man, I always thought.

I was unhappy with Nixon over how he drug out the Vietnam War after promising to end it. But in reality I thought he pulled off one of the best tactics in that war and I’ve never seen it get the recognition it should have received. He ordered the mining of North Viet Nam’s major port, Haiphong Harbor. Just as in Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russian supply ships turned around. Nixon proved once again that when you stand up to the Russians, they will blink. Had Lyndon Johnson used and stuck with such tactics, Vietnam, as awful a mistake as it was, might have turned out better. As for Nixon’s infamous incursion into Cambodia, I don’t know. In a war, you have to go after the enemy where you find them (Barack Obama has talked of going into Pakistan).

Nixon never cared for domestic affairs. He loved the world stage, always playing the part of a statesman. He could have contested the razor close and suspicious election of 1960, but thought it best for the nation not to.

His downfall was the Watergate break-in. Seems to me he should have just faced it, blamed it on over-zealous supporters, and put it behind him. I think the story would never have gained legs had it not been for the cover-up, which the secret tapes proved he directed.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton should have resigned out of respect for the office over the Lewinsky affair.

And George W. Bush has managed to make the United States look evil and indifferent to world opinion and at the same time incompetent. Bush has as much as said that he cares not what others think. He is simply the “Decider.”

In today’s atmosphere, Nixon wouldn’t even of had to have resigned. Sure everyone, even his own party and many of his once admirers were fed up with him. But, look at George W. Bush, he just gives a silly smile and presses on, knowing that he can leave his mess to his successor, in what may well be the final revenge on the Democrats and the nation itself for its lack of respect for the “Decider.”

During Nixon’s time, the Republicans, the Party of Lincoln, who freed the slaves, came up with the cynical Southern Strategy of appealing to bigotry, racism and white backlash to replace the Southern Democrats. But Nixon also presided over the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

He fostered better relations with the old Soviet Union and went to Communist China to open diplomatic relations with that nation.

On the down side, Nixon did set the precedent for the presidency as a dictatorship.

The current Bush has outdone him. Bush openly defies the Constitution with his signing statements that proclaim he does not have to follow laws he does not agree with. Bush has presided over an administration that uses warrantless searches, spies on citizens, and throws people into jail without trial or even habeas corpus.

There was a time toward the premature end of the Nixon presidency that some feared he would use the ongoing Vietnam War as an excuse to declare martial law. But even Nixon backed down when he saw the handwriting on the wall and more importantly when some influential lawmakers from his own party visited him in private.

Nixon wrongly used his executive powers to investigate his enemies, sometimes sicking the IRS on them (whether others ever did such things, I don’t know).

Nixon was a loner, dark, and devious, and more of a statesman than the past two presidents could have ever hoped to have been.