Monday, April 25, 2011


In Nixonland, historian Rick Perlstein (left) argued that Richard Nixon's class resentments inspired him to bait the privileged elites he hated (plus win a whole bunch of elections) using wedge issues such as anti-communism, race, and law and order, igniting the hyper-partisanship that roil our politics today.

That was and remains hard for Nixonites to swallow, since today's mainstream conservatives are far to Nixon's right. Sam Tanenhaus (below), another leading authority on Cold War-era politics, has argued that the culture wars' Fort Sumter moment was actually the far right's outrage over Nixon's moderate to liberal foreign and domestic policy agenda. If that's true, and if you're a liberal or moderate, then you have to end up admiring Nixon, at least grudgingly, for battling his way to the top of a party that had nominated an extremist such as Barry Goldwater (another Perlstein subject) four years before and then proceed to go to China and create the EPA. Maybe Nixon was just acting smart instead of acting out.

Perlstein's now researching the last volume of his political triduum, on Ronald Reagan. I had assumed (well, hoped) that as a political progressive, Perlstein would at least be tempted by the idea that the U.S. had lost more than it gained when Nixon was ousted, as another Nixon biographer, the late Stephen Ambrose, wrote in his own third volume. The Reagans, Goldwaters, and Buckleys always knew Nixon wasn't one of them. If the right had fought harder for Nixon in 1973-74, might he even have been able to hold on? Did any key conservatives come to the conclusion in the depths of Watergate that you could discredit liberal Republicanism by letting Nixon go down the tubes?

If there's anything to Ta
nenhaus's theory, it will take Perlstein a considerable amount of intellectual engineering to get from Nixonland to Reaganland without leaving the impression that he scapegoated Nixon for the sins of the Reagan-Goldwater wing of the party by blaming him and not it for today's political rancorousness.

Aptly rendering Reagan, and especially his latter day, right-of-Reagan acolytes, without redeeming Nixon -- that would need to be Perlstein's secret plan.

One approach is just to say that Nixon's failures de-legitimized his substance, leaving a vacuum for GOP extremists to fill. Perlstein would be onto something there. Deep down, Nixon himself thought Watergate was worse than most of his critics did. They thought he was guilty of hurting the presidency. He believed he helped contribute to the deaths of millions in Cambodia and Vietnam as U.S. resolve to continue to support anti-communist regimes crumbled amid the distractions of Watergate. If Perlstein plays his cards right, he can blame Nixon for Reagan and Pol Pot both.

There's a hint of Perlstein's approach to his Reagan book in his new "Mother Jones" article about lying and politics. He doesn't say lying started with Nixon. How could he after devoting so much attention to the Pentagon Papers, which embodied the vast, fateful mendacity of two Democratic administrations? And yet he writes:

[A] virulent strain of political utilitarianism was already well apparent by the time the Plumbers were breaking into the Democratic National Committee: "Although I was aware they were illegal," White House staffer Jeb Stuart Magruder told the Watergate investigating committee, "we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was a legitimate cause."

Even conservatives who were not allied with the White House had learned to think like Watergate conspirators. To them, the takeaway from the scandal was that Nixon had been willing to bend the rules for the cause. The New Right pioneer M. Stanton Evans once told me, "I didn't like Nixon until Watergate."

Though many in the New Right proclaimed their contempt for Richard Nixon, a number of its key operatives and spokesmen in fact came directly from the Watergate milieu. Two minor Watergate figures, bagman Kenneth Rietz (who ran Fred Thompson's 2008 presidential campaign) and saboteur Roger Stone (last seen promoting a gubernatorial bid by the woman who claimed to have been Eliot Spitzer's madam) were rehabilitated into politics through staff positions in Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign. G. Gordon Liddy became a right-wing radio superstar.

So Nixonland ethics and personnel were mainlined into the Reagan GOP -- and that's not to mention the worst Rogering of America, as Perlstein sees it. That began with Nixon, too, specifically his corrupt first vice president, Spiro Agnew, who excoriated the networks for their criticism of the administration:

There evolved a new media definition of civility that privileged "balance" over truth-telling—even when one side was lying. It's a real and profound change—one stunningly obvious when you review a 1973 PBS news panel hosted by Bill Moyers and featuring National Review editor George Will, both excoriating the administration's "Watergate morality." Such a panel today on, say, global warming would not be complete without a complement of conservatives, one of them probably George Will, lambasting the "liberal" contention that scientific facts are facts—and anyone daring to call them out for lying would be instantly censured. It's happened to me more than once—on public radio, no less.

In the same vein, when the Obama administration accused Fox News of not being a legitimate news source, the DC journalism elite rushed to admonish the White House. Granted, they were partly defending Major Garrett, the network's since-departed White House correspondent and a solid journalist—but in the process, few acknowledged that under Roger Ailes, another Nixon veteran, management has enforced an ideological line top to bottom.

Lying (more than ever before, "every day," worse than the Maine, worse than the Pentagon Papers!), continuing Watergate-style opportunism, media balance instead of "truth telling," partisan politicking disguised as cable news -- all laid at the feet of Nixon and his men, all because he didn't get into that snobby club back at Whittier College.


J.C. Marrero said...

As you so wisely imply, the tragedy of Watergate is that we will never know if, without it, South Vietnam could have survived or whether Cambodia would have avoided Pol Pot's reign of horrors.

The yet unanswered question is whether Congress morally failed in not helping Nixon save himself, not for Nixon's sake, but to avoid a paralysis in government and its far-reaching consequences. Nixon could have been punished without destroying his then fragile achievements.

Perhaps I am too cynical in suspecting that the 1975 Southeast Asia debacle served those who had opposed the war just fine. I am very suspicious of liberals who do not take responsibility for the consequences of their posturings. Good intentions are fine, but not if they lead to cruel results.

Back to the new Watergate exhibit, does it bring up such questions? As I noted in a previous comment, the unopened can of worms here is what were the many motives at play when Congress opted for the presidential "death" penalty?

An analogy (albeit extreme) is the abdication of Nicholas II which led to a separate Russian peace with Germany, a prolongation of war on the western front and ultimately the consolidation of Bolshevik government. Luckily, Watergate's worst effects were not felt at home.

There were no heroes in Watergate--not the president, the Congress, the press, nor the public.

Reading and refelcting upon your blog, I have come to the sad and belated conclusion that the Nixon presidency turned out mostly to be a disaster. But it was not all his fault.

Rick Perlstein said...

John, these would be great matters to discuss together at the NARA conference on July 22. Will you be there?

J.C., I respect your point of view, but factually, Nixon and Kissinger's avowals to one another, in their most intimate strategic conversations, that South Vietnam could never survive on its own no matter what, predate Watergate.

Also, Rev, thanks for not mentioning that I identified the concurring Supreme Court justice as "Lewis Black."

All best,

J.C. Marrero said...

I wonder if Nixon and Kissinger believed that South VietNam could not survive at all or could not survive without a credible US promise to back up the peace accords with force if need be.

At any rate, I thought "Nixonland" was a first class read.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Juan and Rick.

I've seen taped Nixon comments in which he holds open the possibility of SV's survival. Also, I don't think even he and Kissinger knew how well Vietnamization had worked. I believe Rick has been too hard on the SV army which fought bravely for two years without us. It's true we'll never know. But I don't think we can lump RN and HAK together on this one.

I don't know about a NARA conference, Rick.

Thanks again, gents.

Rick Perlstein said...

Perhaps not publicly announced yet. It's in conjunction with the publication of this volume:

Rick Perlstein said...

Meaty discussion here, John:

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Rick. More later. I'm in Episcopalianland today.