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New respect for Richard Nixon, 'the man of many masks'



9 January 2013

At Nixon's funeral in 1994, Bill Clinton advised "the day of judging president Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career (should) come to a close".
At Nixon's funeral in 1994, Bill Clinton advised "the day of judging president Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career (should) come to a close".

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Richard Nixon's birth. For the past four decades, his name has evoked scandal and ignominy.

Though he opened China, thawed the Cold War and created the environmental protection agency, his landmark achievements are overshadowed by the third-rate burglary and White House cover-up that still define him. For many, Nixon's lasting legacies are widespread distrust in government and the practice of adding "-gate" to any political scandal.

At Nixon's funeral in 1994, Bill Clinton advised "the day of judging president Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career (should) come to a close". He was right. Beyond Watergate, Nixon's life provides a bounty of lessons for Americans, especially for today's troubled Republican Party.

A loyal life-long Republican, Nixon would not recognise his party today. After all, his view of what it meant to be a Republican is at odds with the more doctrinal conservative movement that dominates America's centre-right party. A dose of Nixonian pragmatism would be salutary for his political brethren.

How so? Put simply, Nixon was a much better conservative than most contemporary Republicans.

For Nixon, whose heroes included European conservatives Churchill, de Gaulle and Adenaeuer, Republicans were not a rigidly ideological party. Consistency in the application of a fixed doctrine was not his highest aim. Like Tories of old - and unlike Tea Partiers today - he preferred flexibility and adaptability.

As a result, Nixon barely tampered with LBJ's Great Society at a time of widespread public support for the Keynesian welfare state. His major reforms such as the Philadelphia Plan, the first significant federal affirmative action program, reflected the spirit of the times. Moreover, they represented incremental and consensual change. Given the intransigence Tea-Party Republicans have displayed in the past four years, and their utterly unconservative refusal to ground ideological ambitions in political realities, there is much to be said for such a mindset.

Nixon also believed Republicans should represent the big tent, one capable of embracing a variety of beliefs and implementing a range of policies depending on what circumstances permit and what the priorities of the day demand.

As president, he appointed liberals to senior positions, even as he attempted to woo the "Buckleyites," the National Review conservatives named after editor William F. Buckley Jr. And throughout his career, Nixon stumped in every state for both liberal and conservative Republican candidates for congress. Shocked conservatives frequently asked him why he campaigned for liberals. Nixon's answer was simple: "I would rather have Republicans as majority leaders in the House and Senate than Democrats."

Today, many activists apply ideological litmus tests to presidential and congressional candidates. Although those nominees who dole out the ideological red meat may attract the party's right-wing base in primary contests, they all too often fail to appeal to the broader electorate. Republican primary voters should heed Nixon's dictum: "Sometimes it is necessary to make a painful decision to support a candidate who may be wrong on your pet issue (abortion, gun control), but right on most others."

Nixon also understood the vital importance of timing in political affairs.

"Circumstances are infinite," Edmund Burke observed. "He who does not take them into consideration is not erroneous but stark mad." Nixon agreed. For him, what made excellent sense in one set of circumstances could be futile or disastrous in another, not just for the party but for the nation.

Witness his volte face on China. For years, Nixon had been a staunch Cold Warrior who supported the diplomatic isolation of "Red China". But by 1966-67, as circumstances had started to change - the Sino-Soviet split, America's quagmire in Vietnam, and shifting public attitudes about US-China policy - Nixon recognised the folly of ostracising nearly a billion people. That decision culminated in his 1972 opening, which in turn prompted conservatives to withdraw their support. When Nixon visited China, Bill Buckley lamented: "America has lost irretrievably any remaining sense of moral mission in the world."

Such u-turns have led to charges that "Tricky Dick" never stood for anything and that this "man of many masks" was prepared to negotiate everything. But as Nixon once put it, those politicians supremely confident about who and what they are would "burn down the bakery fighting for principles" rather than "win half a loaf through a judicious compromise". As the debt ceiling debacle and fiscal cliff crisis demonstrate, the GOP's right wing could learn from Nixon's approach.

There is one other quality about Nixon that makes him a good role model for today's Republicans: he was worldly. He saw the world as it was, not as idealists on both Left and Right envisaged it.

During his so-called Wilderness Years - from his political retirement in 1962 to his second presidential run in 1968 - Nixon travelled extensively around the globe, making about a dozen fortnightly trips across Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. These excursions abroad included substantial discussions about international relations with leading political figures. And they helped redefine his views about the US role in the world.

Bear this in mind when you consider the dearth of serious foreign-policy thinking in today's GOP. In his 40-minute address to the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney dedicated only one paragraph to foreign affairs (with no reference to Afghanistan). His running mate, Paul Ryan, skipped the subject altogether.

Long before Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian who wrote the bestselling The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Nixon explicitly set out the argument that the US was overextended, that it needed to recognise limits to power. He appealed to the classic conservative virtues of prudence, scepticism concerning sweeping ambition, and the dangers of hubris.

In an age when it has been more or less compulsory for both Democrats and Republicans to champion a new American Century, Nixon lauded an emerging multipolar world. "When we see the world in which we are about to move," he remarked in 1971, "the United States no longer is in the position of complete pre-eminence or predominance (and) that is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it can be a constructive thing." Nixon was premature, but he had acknowledged what no president since has been willing to admit: that we live in a pluralistic world and that US power is past its apogee.

None of this is meant to suggest that today's Republicans ought to jettison long-held principles of small government and free markets, or fall over themselves to accommodate Democrats at every turn. Nor is it an attempt to sugar coat the crimes and misdemeanors of the Nixon administration. One can concede Nixon had a dark side that helped destroy his presidency, and still believe that the GOP would do well to learn from his brand of conservatism.

So nearly 19 years after his death, and almost four decades since his resignation, what might Nixon advise Republicans today?

Avoid ideological litmus tests to primary candidates. Adapt to the changing circumstances of a more liberal post-electoral environment. And adopt a more realist view in a post-American world.

Such advice might offend the sensibilities of many Republicans, from Tea Partiers to neo-conservatives, but it would help improve their electoral prospects in a progressive age. It might also put an end to the divisive politics dominating Washington today.


Tom Switzer and Nicole Hemmer are research associates at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.


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