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Nostalgia for Nixon?

By Elizabeth Drew
Saturday, June 9, 2007

Anger and frustration with the president have produced an unusual turn of late. Numerous people have been moved to remark, "I'm beginning to miss Nixon," or, "I wish we could have Nixon back" -- this usually followed by, "He was so progressive on domestic policy."

The nostalgists rightly see Richard Nixon as having been far more intelligent and thoughtful than George W. Bush; Nixon was indeed very smart, though no intellectual. Actually, he hated intellectuals, among others, including Jews, political opponents and those born to privilege. Nixon lacked the exceptional curiosity of Bill Clinton, but he had an understanding of the world that can only be longed for today.

In fact, Nixon, who ran a rather disorganized presidency, wasn't interested in domestic policy. He essentially handed it off to his aide John Ehrlichman. And there was no unifying philosophy. Nixon called himself a "pragmatist," and he should be taken at his word: His domestic policy was a blend of the enlightened, the pragmatic and the cynical.

In 1969, a Republican senator described Nixon to me as "the man with the portable center." Nixon Cabinet member George Romney (father of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney) told people, "I don't know what the president believes in. Maybe he doesn't believe in anything." Moreover, those who see Nixon as progressive, or even liberal, overlook the context in which he governed. They view him through the lens of the post-Reagan era and in a time of a radical presidency. It's important to recall that throughout his presidency Nixon faced a Democratic Congress far more liberal and aggressive than today's. And congressional Republicans then included a sizable liberal bloc. But Nixon passed up the opportunity to form a liberal-moderate coalition.

The domestic area for which Nixon is retrospectively given the most credit is environmental policy. When Nixon took office, the environmental movement was at its peak. When his own ordered-up polls showed a dramatic increase in public concern about the environment, he did the pragmatic thing and in his 1970 State of the Union address put forward 38 environmental measures. Yet Nixon told Ehrlichman, "Just keep me out of trouble on environmental issues," and called the environmental movement "crap" for "clowns."

Major steps toward improving air quality and water purity were taken during his presidency. But they didn't happen without a fight. Virtually all of these measures originated in Congress, mostly sponsored by Democratic Sens. Edmund Muskie and Gaylord Nelson. Among the environmental bills Nixon signed into law were the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act (which he first vetoed and later withheld funds for) and the Clean Air Act (this was not as strict as Democrats had proposed; Nixon refused to invite its sponsor, Muskie, to the signing, and he later lowered the act's standards). Only after losing a court battle did the Nixon administration ban DDT. It also resisted its own environmental council's recommendation to regulate phosphates in water (a sop to the soap industry).

Nixon's effort to replace welfare programs with cash payments, the Family Assistance Plan, urged on him by domestic adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has often been cited as his most progressive domestic proposal. But after Nixon announced the plan on national television, he told H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, his chief of staff, to "make a big play for it, but don't let it pass, we can't afford it." Once the plan was voted down by Congress in 1970 (neither liberals nor conservatives liked it), Nixon set the proposal aside.

He whittled down the Great Society's poverty initiative, though Congress stopped him from going as far as he wanted, and ceased funding a housing program. Yet despite his own misgivings, he presided over increased spending for education, and he proposed federal support for health insurance, especially for low-income families -- he often referred to his parents' struggle to pay medical bills -- but this, too, failed. In the end, though Nixon had campaigned in 1968 against Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, despite his resistance, he acceded to its premise, to a point: that the government could do good things for the people. He was the last Republican president to do so.

The domestic issues that did interest Nixon were the economy, though he failed to tamp down inflation and unemployment, and politically sensitive topics such as abortion, crime and race relations. Yet perhaps his most lasting domestic legacy has been the effects of his "Southern strategy," appealing to Southerners and blue-collar workers who opposed advancement for blacks. His administration enforced civil rights laws only so far as the courts ordered (so that the courts could be blamed). He turned the party of Lincoln into the party that exploited racism.

So, despite the now-fashionable nostalgia, Nixon's pragmatism, his lack of core beliefs and his opportunism throughout his political lifetime offer little reason to doubt that he would be right in step with the conservative Republican politics of today.

Elizabeth Drew, a journalist, is the author most recently of "Richard M. Nixon."

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