Monday, September 27, 2004

Nixon and the End of Civility

At 4:00 am on the morning of May 9, 1970, Richard Nixon decided to take a visit to the Lincoln Memorial, which would be the primary site of an anti-war protest the next day. Nixon had just told his valet, Manolo Sanchez, that he considered the Lincoln Memorial, lit up in the evening, the most beautiful sight in Washington (it is). Sanchez had never seen it, and Nixon set out to change that. At the foot of the statue, Nixon read to Sanchez his favorite phrases from the inscriptions.

As he did, eight to nine homeless people - er, I mean war protestors - gathered around in disbelief as the President continued. Before leaving after over an hour of conversation with the protestors, he posed for a final photo with a red-bearded student from Detroit, and said "I know you came a long way for this event. I know you are terribly frustrated and angry about our policy and opposed to it. But I just hope your opposition doesn't turn into a blind hatred of the country." It didn't.

Having dispensed with the warm and fuzzy story that humanizes Nixon, here is a list of his lesser known crimes while in office, provided in Paul Johnsons A History of the American People:

1) He "created his own intelligence unit, responsible only to himself, with a staff of 11 and financed by State Department "Special Emergency" money";
2) He "used J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, the IRS, and the Justice Department to harrass his enemies, especially the press and business, and to tap their phones, the mineworkers' leader John L. Lewis being one victim."
3) He used the IRS to "get names on his enemies list" and had made "persistent efforts to penalize the Chicago Tribune, which he hated, in the courts, and to get the New York Times indicted for tax fraud."
4) He "had been privy to CIA assassination plots and had been a party to the coup which led to the killing of his ally Diem";
5) He had his brother have agents of the Justice Department "carry out dawn raids on the homes of US Steel Executives who had opposed his policies";
6) He exploited the Federal contract system and used executive orders in housing finance to get his way, plotted against right-wing radio and TV stations, used the IRS to harrass yet more enemies, increased phone tapping markedly, and taped and played back to newspaper editors the large-scale womanizing of Martin Luther King.

Oh, wait a minute, my mistake - items 1 through 3 were actually FDR's shenanigans, and 4-6 are attributable to JFK. Don't even get me started on LBJ. It all makes you wonder why we don't refer to Nixon as RMN.

The mark of a paranoid personality is the feeling that "they" are out to get you, and Nixon certainly had that feeling, but not without justification. The press had been out to get him from the time he made his mark in Congress as a lead investigator in the charges or espionage brought against Alger Hiss, a Harvard-educated establishment golden boy. Hiss was a high ranking member of the State Department who had been to the Yalta conference with FDR. He was also a Communist doing his best to serve the dictates of Stalin in, if not bringing the worker's revolution to the US, at least giving the Soviets a leg up.

The problem was that all the other Harvard-educated pansies couldn't imagine their refined boy Hiss being guilty, especially of charges brought against him by the slovenly Whitaker Chambers. One was either civilized, and sided with Hiss, or a drueling McCarthyite on a witch hunt. Nixon fell into the latter category, and as such generated a quick list of the civilized who would always regard him as beyond the pale.

Nixon had his flaws, no doubt, and ultimately the blame for his failure in office lies with him, but his presidency also marked the culmination of the rise of the New Left in the sixties. Ultimately his exhortation that opposition to US policy not turn into blind hatred of the country fell on deaf ears, and many in America and in the press actively rooted for American defeat in Vietnam. Ultimately that was achieved through Nixon's impending impeachment and pre-emptive resignation; Nixon had negotiated a Peace Treay with the North Vietnamese that the US Congress had no stomach for enforcing after Nixon resigned. His presidency marked the end of civility in American politics, but it wasn't his lack of civility that made it so.


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