June 25, 2007

The Newest Nixon

The Newest Nixon

statesman or slimeball?

Statesman or slimeball?

In 1962, after losing the governor’s race to Pat Brown, Richard M. Nixon pronounced: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Unfortunately, Nixon’s admonition was more like an exercise in reverse psychology: as president, former president, and even posthumously, Nixon has been kicked around…a lot. And as this week marks the 35th anniversary of Watergate, you would think that the blows would be coming fast and hard, but they’re not.

To say that people are now treating Nixon with kid gloves would be a gross exaggeration. However, the convergence of the Watergate anniversary, the batches of new Nixon biographies, and the Broadway sensation Frost/Nixon — all within the context of Bush’s presidency — has politicians, partisans and pundits looking at Nixon’s legacy in a new light.

A few weeks ago I did something I never expected to do in my life. I shed a tear for Richard Milhous Nixon. That’s in no small measure a tribute to Frank Langella, who should win a Tony Award for his star Broadway turn in Frost/Nixon….Frost/Nixon, a fictionalized treatment of the disgraced former president’s 1977 television interviews with David Frost, does not whitewash Nixon’s record. But Mr. Langella unearths humanity and pathos in the old scoundrel eking out his exile in San Clemente. For anyone who ever hated Nixon, this achievement is so shocking that it’s hard to resist a thought experiment the moment you’ve left the theater: will it someday be possible to feel a pang of sympathy for George W. Bush?

Perhaps not. It’s hard to pity someone who, to me anyway, is too slight to hate. Unlike Nixon, President Bush is less an overreaching Machiavelli than an epic blunderer surrounded by Machiavellis. He lacks the crucial element of acute self-awareness that gave Nixon his tragic depth….It would be a waste of Frank Langella’s talent to play George W. Bush (though not, necessarily, of Matthew McConaughey’s).

Frank Rich, Failed Presidents Ain’t What They Used to BeThe New York Times, June 3, 2007


photo of bumper sticker

The good old days

[ekai/ Flickr]

Do you agree with Frank Rich? How do you look at Nixon’s presidency as Watergate recedes further into history? Do you consider him a great statesman? Or has Nixon’s: “If the president does it, than it’s legal…” sentiment set a precedent for all presidents to abuse their power? What does Nixon’s “self-impeachment” say about today’s political climate? Does his legacy suggest that we are a nation that is incapable of learning a lesson? As the saying goes: Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Or has our current president better captured our zeitgeist with his masterful paraphrasing: Fool me once shame on you…fool me — and you get fooled?

Related Content

  • Ben

    Spotted on a bumper during the 2004 elections: a vintage campaign sticker reading “President Nixon. Now more than ever.”

  • hurley

    Tricky Dick lives! Amazing the rot it took to make him smell so sweet. I grew up thinking he’d be sending me to Vietnam. What joy at ten when he resigned — I kept the local paper announcing his departure locked up in my safe for years. He was perhaps the boogeyman of my youth, but casting the long sad eye back there’s little doubt that, apart from Vietnam, he did more to the good than most who succeeded him. You have only to look at his environmental legislation for proof. What a sad commentary on the present state of affairs.

    I assume you’ve already got Gary Wills (Nixon Agonistes) booked. How about Robert Coover? Nixon an early obsession of his and at least one of the fruits of that obsession, The Public Burning, one of the great American political novels ever. And maybe the funniest, all the way to the very bitter end.

  • rc21

    Nixon like many people was not just good or bad. He did many positive things while president. Yet he did many things that were bad beyond belief.

    I was a kid at the time. My parents through their hate for Nixon helped mold me into a leftist of the highest order. It took me almost 35 years to realize that although Nixon was corrupt and wrong. The GOP was by far the better party when it came to ideas, and staying close to what America was originally envisioned to be by our founders.

  • Hurley, no matter how much rot has befouled the US polity, Nixon still smells like fermented soybeans, only he was not at all good for American or world welfare.

    Pointing to environmental policy as a counter to other dastardly Dickish actions or inactions completely ignores the power of left-wing social movements at that time.

    The revisionist ROS show on Reagan was almost too much to take without an airline sickness bag nearby. I’m holding out some hope that this show will avoid a nostalgic buffing and polishing.

  • Probably best to just let the man speak for himself. No revision necessary.

    “We’re going to [put] more of these little Negro bastards on the welfare rolls at $2,400 a family—let people like [New York Sen.] Pat Moynihan … believe in all that crap. But I don’t believe in it. Work, work—throw ’em off the rolls. That’s the key … I have the greatest affection for [blacks], but I know they’re not going to make it for 500 years. They aren’t. You know it, too. The Mexicans are a different cup of tea. They have a heritage. At the present time they steal, they’re dishonest, but they do have some concept of family life. They don’t live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like.”

    —Nixon in May 1971

    “You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists.”

    —Nixon to H. R. (Bob) Haldeman in May 1971

    “You know what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo, we all know that, so was Socrates. […] Do you know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags. […] You know what happened to the popes? It’s all right that popes were laying the nuns. That’s been going on for years—centuries.”

    —Nixon in May 1971

    “We want to decimate that god—-ed place … North Vietnam is going to get reordered … It’s about time. It’s what should have been done years ago.”

    Nixon to aide Charles Colson in June 1972.

    “I’d rather use the nuclear bomb.”

    —Nixon to Kissinger, a few weeks before he ordered a major escalation of the Vietnam War in 1972

  • DreadfulBastard
  • Oh Pllllleeeeease… first you canonize Ronald Ray Gun now this. Have you no shame! Just stop it!

    (PS. Thank you sidewalker)

  • I thought I heard Alice Amsden suck in some air on last night’s show when Chris said something like “Everybody Loves Nixon Now”. If I interprted that gasp correctly I thought she was going to say something like “What!? Are you nuts?” but she covered her shock and kept to the subject at hand.

  • Nixon wanted Lennon deported because Lennon was a peace activist.

    Quotes from the film The U.S. vrs John Lennon

    Reporter: Mr. Lennon, do you feel any antagonism toward the people who have attempted to have you deported?

    John Lennon: Absolutely not. I believe time wounds all heels.

  • I have a suggestions for a future show: How about, Vlad the Impailer: He wasn’t so Bad.

  • hurley

    No revisionism intended, sidewalker, and no real irony, either. Rich’s comments of course more a comment on Bush than Nixon. But thanks for the bracing journey back down the darker corners of memory lane. He was almost comical in his awfulness. But I still give the devil his due for his environmental legacy — in relative terms of course — while in no way ignoring “the power of left-wing social movements at that time.” Still haven’t heard the show, but looking forward to it.

  • Chelsea

    We want this show to explore Nixon’s legacy in the context of today.

    The guests that we have scehduled for the hour: James Reston, jr., Frank Rich and Alan Barra, will hardly say Nixon is a saint. They will, however, make this a very complex and nuanced converstaion.

  • Chelsea,

    Then perhaps I was misled by Chris’s “Everybody loves Nixon now” last night. That is what I am responding to.

  • Plus, I may still have some emotional scars from that show about Ronald Reagan.

  • DreadfulBastard
  • DreadfulBastard
  • peggysue wrote: I have a suggestions for a future show: How about, Vlad the Impailer: He wasn’t so Bad.

    They could start with the book, “The Historian”. I got a laugh out of that book’s attempt to humanize Vlad. And, surely, he must have had a tragic story that drove him to what he became. But, so what? He was still one of the most horrifying people to step on terra firma. Certainly, we can hope to learn how not to create more Vlad’s, but let’s not whitewash the horror.

    I’m interested to see where this Nixon conversation is going. Is it simply, “Well, maybe he wasn’t as bad as Bush?” My response would be, “Yeah, so, what of it? Losing my arm isn’t as bad as losing my head, either, but I’m not going to ask the guy who cut off my arm out for a date. He’s still repulsive.”

  • Or maybe this is a conversation about how the Republican Party is realizing how badly history is going to look upon their tenures in the Oval Office that they are desperately trying to resurrect any positive aspects….

  • Allison, ha! I had no idea there had already been an attempt to humanize Vlad the Impaler. After checking him out on wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vlad_III_the_Impaler his love of torture does make him seem a lot like Dick Cheney but I’d still bet my ipod that violent death for violent death Nixon would come out way ahead of the Vlad the Impaler.

  • in his own words…

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?

    HENRY KISSINGER: That would drown about 200,000 people.

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Well, no, no, no. I’d rather use the nuclear bomb.

    HENRY KISSINGER: That, I think, would just be too much.

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The nuclear bomb? Does that bother you?

    HENRY KISSINGER: [inaudible]

    PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake.

  • As for Nixon’s legacy and how it effcts us today here is an excerpt from Amy Goodman’s recent interview with Michael Moore about his new film Sicko.

    “And in the film, I peg a certain date when the HMOs really got their start. And I got very lucky. I had a twenty-three-year-old researcher in my office who worked on the film, who was actually someone I believe that was recommended by Jeremy Scahill, so there’s a Democracy Now! connection to this moment in the movie. But he found this Watergate tape — has nothing to do with Watergate, it’s one of the Nixon tapes — at the Archives, National Archives, where Nixon and Ehrlichman are discussing whether or not to support this HMO concept. And Ehrlichman says to Nixon, “You’re going to love this, because this is private enterprise. This isn’t like some freebie thing.” Nixon goes, “Oh, I like that. Tell me about it.” And then Ehrlichman says, “Well, this is how it’s going to work, these HMOs. They’re going to make more money by providing less care. The less care they give them, the patients, the more money the company makes.” Nixon goes, “Ooh, not bad!” And it’s all there on tape.”

    Michael Moore

  • enhabit

    i just heard (NPR) that stalin enjoys @ 50% approval rating in russia right now..the power and danger of selective memory and nostalgia!

    that “one china” policy, oft sited as one of RMN’s great legacies..hmm, did we really need it after all? hard to say, but it is a complex row to hoe to this day and beyond.

    also, is it just possible that one reason the US is so resistant to the court at the hague is because of possible indictments directed at people like kissinger?

  • iconoclast

    What is it they say about Jimmy Carter? Most liberal president we’ve had since Nixon? Like Hurley, I grew up making plans for exile in Canada, while the hopes of the 60s roasted away in the Mekong delta. But domestically, haven’t things just gotten worse since RMN? What I’m suggesting is that the entire premise of Nixon nostalgia is a recognition that domestic policy since Reagan, at least, has been at best neutral for the vast majority of Americans, calamitous for an ever-growing minority, and good only for the yacht-set. If Nixon nostalgia is a way for us to recognize this, I’m happy to play along. While we’re at it, can we topple a few Reagan statues?

  • merry00123

    wow powerleveling

    IF you want to buy wow powerleveling,you can go to


    runescape powerleveling

    IF you want to buy runescape powerleveling,you can go to


  • So I guess the summer hiatus thing means that we won’t have Nixon to kick around any more. Damn, and I had my steel toed boots all laced up.

  • enhabit

    keep the boots on peggysue..plenty of butt-whoopin’ left to go around..

    cheyney is worse by far!

    what the hell is merry00123 talking about? a spammer?…here?

  • farouet

    Nixon was driven. Who knows what was inside him that made him so? He was an opportunist — perhaps one of the best we’ve seen. A true American in that regard: self-made, re-invented.

    There’s no question of his ability to handle affairs of state. He just had a very, very vulnerable sense of himself and had great power to wield at a time when the country was fervently divided.

    Blame him for Cambodia. But blame us all for the kind of free world we have set in our heads and the kind of global adversaries, worse than us, that we had then. Nothing is too small to crush in the name of our ideals.

    You would not have seen him ‘do Iraq’ as is this present ‘Prez’, the one-sided incompetent still in office. Nixon would know how properly to play off forces and co-opt who he would have to. And use ‘limited’ force or simply the threat of force to make the most of our power. Not wad our National Guardsmen — the backup guys — into an unworkable mess that simply shows our weakness.

    Nixon’s main mistake — the Watergate carte-blanche and coverup — was a mistake because it led to his legitimate removal that in turn caused a lathered-up rightwing to blame ‘liberals’ and come back with ruthless vengeance.

  • I can glean some respect for intelligent albeit paranoid power mongers like Nixon. I find it impossible to respect arrogant bunglers like G.W. Bush and simpleton puppets like Ronald Reagon. I think Nixon was an anomaly produced by mistake by the republican political machine. If they had known he had a brain of his own, they would have nipped him at the bud.