Thursday, January 10, 2013

Richard Nixon's 100th Birthday

One of David Levine's famous Nixon caricatures from NYRB
I just learned that we passed the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Nixon on January 9th. I need to remark on this. Some preliminaries: 

In 1960, I endorsed Richard Nixon for president. I was in the 2nd grade. 

In 1968, I attended the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach that nominated Richard Nixon, and I supported him that fall agains HHH. I was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school. 

In 1972 I was a sophmore in college at the University of Iowa. I could finally vote, but I couldn't vote for Richard Nixon, although an overwhelming majority of Americans did so. 

In August 1974, I married the Iowa Guru and Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace. 

I've had occasion to read about him and consider him for a long time now. He is a perplexing and almost frightening character. Along with Lyndon Johnson, he was the dominant political figure in the post-WWII era. Ronald Reagan was Nixon's political child, not his superior. 

Yet for all his Shakespearean flaws, Nixon could have been a great president. Perhaps because of, perhaps in spite of, his titanic resentments and drive to get ahead, he thought strategically. He had a tremendous political intelligence; warped, but if you look at things that he did or wanted to do, especially domestically, like a welfare reform, environmental protection, health insurance, and so on. He looks like a flaming liberal by the standards of today. But yet again, he was indifferent to many of these innovative policies. He would sacrifice about anything to keep political advantage, including principles. 

His forte, and yet the arena that brought out the worst in him, was international affairs. Viet Nam, of course. Think of the opening to China, detente with the Soviet Union, arms limitation treaties, Chile. So much, so Machiavellian. 

Two books stand out in my mind about Nixon. One that I listened to just this year and that I enjoyed immensely, Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, which uses Nixon as the lens to look at the American political, social, and cultural scene from the mid-60's to the time of Nixon's re-election in 1972. Perlstein gives us a sense of the roaring resentments that motivated Nixon, and how he played his political hand to keep arising from the political ashes to ascend to the apex that he enjoyed in 1972.    

The other book is, of course, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills. This is Wills as a young man who was a working journalist as well as classics scholar in the 1960's. He'd been plucked from obscurity by William F. Buckley and trained by the the regulars at the National Review. Nixon Agonistes got Wills booted from Buckley's good graces and those of the National Review faithful, but it was worth it. The insights of Wills are amazing, as is his writing. His journalism, which he's pretty much left behind, combined with his literary knowledge, made this an exciting read when I first read it in the summer of 1975. It's still a great treatise on American politics and this amazing character of Richard Nixon. 

Happy birthday, Dick, where ever you are! 

No comments: