What would Nixon do?

On the 30th anniversary of his resignation, there are still skeletons in Tricky Dick’s closet

Dicky, we hardly knew ye …

Dicky, we hardly knew ye …

In the aftermath of the Democratic convention, I’ve been engaged with my own little political fantasy, one that’s sure to make any hardy soul who dares to take on the sobriquet “liberal” weep for joy and one that’s guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of any conservative. Imagine for just a moment that we’ve elected a president whose campaign slogan promised to “bring us together,” and because he won by a very slim margin, he takes that slogan seriously and works to advance an agenda upon which members of both parties can agree.

He proposes a “new internationalism” as our foreign policy, one in which we will no longer act unilaterally on the international stage. Instead, we’ll rely on broad-based support from other nations. No more going it alone; either we’ll have support from the rest of the world, or we won’t do it at all.

Then imagine that the president suggests a “new federalism” at home. This new federalism involves revenue sharing with states and cities to reduce the property-tax burden of the average American. Furthermore, this policy advocates tax reform. We’re going to have more personal deductions to help the workers keep their hard-earned dollars, and we’re going to cut the corporate benefits offered to oil companies. Yep, that’s right—oil companies.

And because so many people with families work full time and still can’t make a decent living, imagine that the president suggests a Family Assistance Plan—and even though it has the word “family” in the title, it doesn’t have anything at all to do with bashing gays. Nope, instead of being a cheap political ploy, this Family Assistance Plan will guarantee a minimum annual salary above the poverty level to every family in the United States.

Now imagine that the president who’s making these proposals is a conservative Republican.

It might be strange enough to qualify for Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, but it’s definitely true. Richard M. Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, who resigned rather than face certain impeachment by the House of Representatives and probable removal from office by the Senate, proposed or enacted all of the above. And those are just a few bones from the liberal skeleton in his closet.

The recent volumes of hagiography written about former President Ronald Reagan would have us believe that he single-handedly ended the Cold War. But remember, it was Nixon who went to China and Nixon who opened détente with the former Soviet Union. Maybe he didn’t end the Cold War, but he sure left the freezer door open so things could start to thaw a bit.

Then there’s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created on Nixon’s watch. His Clean Air Act really intended to cut the levels of pollution in the air we breathe, rather than allow companies to trade their polluting around like cell-phone minutes. His administration more than doubled the environmental legislation and regulation of the previous “liberal” Lyndon B. Johnson administration.

Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration and started the “war on drugs,” but his idea of the way to fight that war was to provide treatment for the victims. Many believe that Nixon’s policy of placing treatment ahead of punishment was the last brief moment of sanity in our nation’s ongoing struggle with substance abuse.

In the area of race relations, Nixon comes off surprisingly well. In spite of his vile “Southern strategy,” which played on white fears of integration, and his pandering to racism by ending busing to desegregate schools, in general, he had a fair-minded approach to affirmative action. His “Philadelphia Plan” (introduced and enacted, but later gutted to preserve his solid support in the South) established proportional hiring as the standard for equal employment. Proportional hiring meant that members of minority groups were to be hired in proportion to their representation in the general population. He also established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise to aid minority businesses in competing for government contracts.

Nixon proposed—and Congress passed—the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which allowed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to file discrimination suits against companies on behalf of citizens. Employers no longer were free to ignore discrimination in the workplace; there were consequences.

And under Nixon, EEOC guidelines were expanded to require equal treatment for both sexes in all facets of employment, from advertising to benefits. It was the end of “Help wanted—male” and “Help wanted—female” advertising, and employers no longer could penalize women for pregnancy or child rearing. These changes to the EEOC did more for the economic equality of women and people of color than any single law before them. All that, and he supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Is it any wonder that one recent history of affirmative action in the United States titles its chapter on Nixon “The Zenith of Affirmative Action”?

I was 14 years old the August night that Nixon resigned, and I whooped with partisan joy. I believed Walter Cronkite when he told us that the “national nightmare” was over. I never imagined that one day I’d be nostalgic for Nixon.

But 30 years on, Nixon’s starting to look a little better. Oh, sure, he ordered a couple of burglaries, took campaign contributions under the table (most of which would be legal these days, by the way) and played “dirty tricks” on his political opponents. The lying under oath to Congress thing’s a bit more serious, but hey, it’s been done since then, more than once—and the guys who did it all seem to have finished out their terms. So what if his administration came to be described as an “imperial presidency”? We’ve been putting up with a guy who thinks it would be easier to be president if we had a dictatorship, haven’t we?

If political fantasies were mind- altering drugs that required treatment (and they just might be), a rehab counselor no doubt would describe the preceding paragraphs as an example of “euphoric recall.” It’s a sign of just how far to the right both parties have drifted that thinking about a president who actually does something that benefits the citizens instead of his campaign donors can induce a high, albeit a short-lived one.

Let’s remember the rest of the story. Not only did Nixon waste a lot of time trying to get the Vietnamese government to take over the fighting, a plan called the “Vietnamization” of the war, but he also secretly expanded the war into Cambodia. He had the FBI spying on citizens and gave J. Edgar Hoover free rein to instigate trouble with a little program called CoIntelPro, which sent government agents to infiltrate peace organizations. He authorized the sloppy covert operations of a gang that couldn’t even pull off a burglary without getting caught, and he had them playing “dirty tricks” on his political enemies and funneling illegal campaign contributions in an effort to steal an election that he easily could have won fair and square. Finally, he participated in a “cover-up” that, for many Americans, was the worst crime of all, because it meant that he wouldn’t even take responsibility for his actions.

And when it became apparent that he was going to get nailed, he quit and came home to California, leaving his underlings to face the music. Many of his co-conspirators did jail time, but only the extremely naive could possibly believe that Nixon hadn’t secured his own pardon before his helicopter left the White House lawn. That’s what I remember most. Well, that and his “Your president is not a crook!” speech.

When we look at Nixon’s legacy as a whole, though, it’s worth asking how we as a nation could have enough consensus on things like caring for the environment, addressing poverty and ensuring fairness in the workplace that a conservative president could see those things not as “liberal hogwash,” but as reasonable, workable policies. The country was frightened in the 1970s, as it is today; don’t forget there were radical groups committing robberies, kidnappings and bombings; there were race riots and antiwar riots; and there was the massacre at Kent State. There’s nothing new about terror, and Nixon used it politically, too. But he still thought spending on social and environmental programs was a worthy endeavor—and, what’s more, the majority of Americans agreed with him, even the conservatives.

Three decades after he resigned, Nixon undoubtedly would feel right at home in the White House. The charged political atmosphere, a war that becomes more unpopular by the day, a fragile economy, a vice president with a bad attitude and a history of shady financial dealings, and an urge to quash dissent all would be very familiar to him. But Nixon’s not in the White House. Instead, we have a president who was elected with an even slimmer margin than in Nixon’s 1968 victory, and he’s busily dismantling whatever good Nixon did, from the EPA to affirmative action, just as fast as he can. Campaign contributors—now mostly big corporate interests—have taken “pay to play” politics to a new level, and there’s big money in ignoring ethical standards to get ahead. There’s even an election up for grabs, and who needs to burglarize an office or two, when campaign contributors have provided these nifty “black box” electronic voting machines?

What would Nixon do? They didn’t call him “Tricky Dick” for nothing. He’d do whatever he thought he could get away with, just like he always did.