Richard Nixon might have been the last American president to have felt a deep concern for the direction of national culture and to have taken the time to reflect on its possible improvement. He was the quintessential American democratic-republican man and exactly what a democracy requires to survive—a common man who aspires to make of himself someone worthy of keeping a Republic.
Conservative Republicans have rightly lionized President Ronald Reagan, but it seems that the more Reagan is invoked at election time, the farther away electoral victory appears. This should give pause and make us consider whether the Republican party has any other twentieth-century statesmen worth emulating? At first, it may seem that, flipping through the proverbial pages of history, conservatives should instinctively ignore the legacy of President Nixon. Certainly any conservative who seriously suggested recovering Nixon and applying Nixon Republicanism to present conditions would be laughed off by public relations experts. After all, how would it benefit the Republican cause to revive the Watergate Scandal in the public mind? The short answer is: How did it benefit the Democratic Party to lionize President Clinton?
Have the American people venomously rejected all candidates associated with or supported by President Clinton? Has the Democratic Party found itself embarrassed or enhanced by President Clinton’s legacy? When considering the legacy of President Clinton, did the American people dwell upon the Monika Lewinsky scandal, or on Clinton era policies and their effects? If the people could forgive a living president his indiscretions and look upon him as an authority in political affairs, then why could they not forgive President Nixon, especially given the considerable wealth of wisdom to be mined from Nixon’s presidency?
If Republicans think this is impossible because the media will always ignore and trivialize as gossip the scandals of the Clinton years while relentlessly blaming any Republican who takes up the mantle of Richard Nixon, then they have already given up the fight against the elite media that Nixon fought so well against on behalf of the Silent Majority, who loved him for it. With this in mind, permit me to offer up some reflections for the consideration of conservative Republicans trying to find their way in the twenty-first century as to why they might be wise to dim the beacon that President Reagan shines and look deep into the darkness for the spirit of President Richard Nixon.
Culture, not Economy
According to Mrs. Annette Kirk, while President Nixon was dying, he had at his bedside a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, suggested to him by a certain wise man who knew what wicked things were written in the sky. Many conservative Republicans tend to regard this as insignificant compared to Nixon’s abandonment of Gold at Brenton Woods, his wage and price controls, and his infamous proclamation that “we’re all Keynesians now.” Far be it from me to defend Nixon’s errors in economic thinking. I will, however, defend Nixon’s sense of priorities. Richard Nixon might have been the last American president to have felt such a deep concern for the direction of national culture and to have taken the time to reflect on its possible improvement. This direction tended away from American traditions of self-restraint, local government, and the work ethic towards self-indulgence, centralized big government, and the entitlement ethic.
Those of us who are not swimming in wealth, health, and Neronic bliss, but nevertheless have yet to decide to quit our lousy jobs, leave our pesky families, and live off government handouts while propagating an overthrow of Church and State, know what Nixon was about. We see all around us how well-off middle class kids find compelling reasons to go on shooting sprees instead of doing their homework, how the “poor” don’t seem as “poor” as people in Somalia or Bangladesh, but still consider their suffering—even if unjust—a good excuse for living on the dole ’till Kingdom Come. We see a culture that screams for the right of homosexuals to get married just as loudly as they scream for the right of heterosexuals to get divorced, while being oblivious to the right of children to a mom and a dad who love them. Those of us who take a moment to think about the rights of our husbands and wives to expect us to do our sacred duty to them, and to our wider families, don’t have time to scream: We’re busy trying to govern our little platoons, put food on the table, and wisdom in the minds of our young.
Those who lament the demise of the free market in America ought to note that it wasn’t caused by Richard Nixon not reading Friedrich Hayek or Ludwig von Mises. It was caused by an American liberal elite that rose to prominence during the New Deal, who put more faith in economic policy than in culture, who tinkered with numbers and data while the people slouched more and more towards sloth on account of the very notion of government tinkering being a meaningful solution to life’s eternal woes. The politics of the New Deal and the Great Society bred a citizenry accustomed to the idea that experts, embedded in administrative institutions, would solve America’s ills and perhaps the ills of the world as well. The proud American worker, who was still around in Nixon’s day, was methodically replaced with the proud American consumer by cultural changes no less than by economic policy. Brenton Woods was a symptom of the coming culture of consumerism, a culture which decided to produce paper money instead of real things.
Nixon didn’t start the trend towards laxity in work ethic; he had to tolerate it and do what he could to remind people that they still had duties, that the university was where you went to study, not protest, that the factory was where you went to work, not to strike, and that citizenship consisted in silent duty, not loud demonstration. The New Deal generation, having matured in a culture that honored work, demanded work from their government when they could not find it on the market. By Nixon’s day, the culture did not demand work, only social justice. By our day, they demand everything from everyone but themselves, and are ready—as in the Section 8 housing riots in Detroit—to push, kick, and beat anyone who stands in the way of their handout. Nixon saw the tide of popular entitlement growing, blessed by fancy new ideas spewing forth from the universities, and saw it, not economic policy, as the greatest challenge to the nation.
No amount of economic growth or economic liberty will convince an entitlement culture that it should prefer to work than to demand things be given to them. The Section 8 riots in Detroit, the Occupy movement, and similar recent popular acts of rebellion, like the ones confronting America in Nixon’s time, are symptomatic of a decay that goes beyond economics. The average poor American is better off than many people on Earth, yet he often still prefers to protest and demand rather than to take responsibility, work, and save. Cutting taxes or applying the gold standard or even abolishing the welfare state won’t change this, because such a people will not respond with greater thrift and enterprise, but with revolution. If the culture is convinced that entitlements are their birthright, they will not “respond” to “economic stimulus” like lower taxes or slashed welfare benefits by becoming more productive, but by angrily demanding that government give them their perceived due. What the people perceive as their due is the content of culture. When Americans perceived liberty as their due, they demanded our present Constitution. When they perceived security as their due, they demanded our present Warfare and Welfare State. President Nixon seemed to understand this, and he actually hectored the American people to stop grumbling about problems and start doing their duties.
Nixon also had the good sense to know where these corrosive tendencies in the culture came from: the universities. He correctly identified the culprits for the malaise afflicting the American body politic as the intelligentsia and the university presidents who had surrendered the campuses to radicals and activists rather than protecting them as places of liberal learning. Nixon was not an “anti-intellectual” or a rube. He recognized the great benefits resulting from the pathos of distance from present concerns in favor of intellectual adventure that the liberal university had to offer to a young person. He knew what a horrible waste of a wonderful opportunity it was when the young, rather than being secluded from the world and surrounded by books in an environment of liberal learning, were recruited into dubious ideological movements and spent their precious student days learning to hate America and waving cardboard signs rather than reading, writing, and listening to the wisdom of wise teachers. Nixon realized that the university which failed to serve the scholar in favor of the activist was failing the nation.
Nixon did not necessarily have any immediate remedies for this cultural malaise. Yet the fact that he understood it so well, and that he oriented much of his time and thought towards seeking out a remedy for this decay, speaks well of him. His call for a New Federalism, which envisioned the reinvigoration of self-government at the local level, was an important idea, because its aim was to get Americans to revive their political and civic associations. This type of thinking, foreign to the economists who believe it would be enough to restore economic growth through correct fiscal or monetary policy, is more important now than ever. For how much more growth can we have before we realize that it doesn’t solve our problems as humans? The generation that burned down America with righteous anger in the 1960s was the beneficiary of post-war growth that saw America become the wealthiest nation on Earth. Growth didn’t stop American decline. Nixon saw this and worked to find other means of addressing the problems of culture.
Intelligence and Style
Nixon was portrayed by the media as a man of deep inferiority complexes, and a man who was jealous of the cosmopolitan sophistication of those who were of better stock. This was of course balderdash. Nixon was the epitome of American middle-class intelligence and style. His image was denigrated by the media because it represented that which the anti-American Left bitterly resented: a modest, self-governing man who worked his way up, without resentment, provided for his family and adopted the ethos of the gentleman despite not having been born within the company of gentlemen. In other words: Nixon was the quintessential American democratic-republican man. He was exactly what a democracy requires to survive—a common man who aspires to make of himself someone worthy of keeping a Republic. The media ridiculed Nixon because he showed working Americans what they or their kids could be. It wasn’t romantic, nor melodramatic, it didn’t smell of the pathos of the revolution. It was calm, suburban, outwardly simple, deeply private. The media wanted Americans to worship their betters, and depend upon their noblesse oblige. Nixon wanted Americans to cultivate a democratic-republican nobility, rather than a starry-eyed admiration for an American elite. He and Pat Nixon did just that, nowhere more famously than in the Checkers speech.
Of course, the media made sure to juxtapose the elegance of the Kennedys with the common crassness of the Nixons. But if you compare the two couples without the media narrative, Pat Nixon outdid Jackie Kennedy in both style and substance. Nixon himself was Humphrey Bogart compared to the punchy Irish chops of President Kennedy. Above all, Nixon’s style as a gentleman was brought to life by his intelligence. You can hardly find a moment in the various tapes that have been made public where he is engaging his intellect in anything but the consideration of politics rightly understood. We often tend to see him as bitter, unhappy, and cold. But the presidency is not the circus, and it would be well if we noticed that the vast majority of our best presidents never smiled goofy smiles or ventured to appear on TV talk shows (or the pre-industrial equivalents) where the topic was usually anything but serious statesmanship. America has always done poorly under smiling presidents, and the more a president was inclined to be a celebrity, right down to the present selfie-in-chief, the worse off America was. Nixon couldn’t smile like an effective politician even if he tried; he always looked like the effort caused him physical pain, as well he should have, since republican citizenship ought to be solemn, not goofy. Nixon, serious and gruff, was at his best.
Politics is not a rosy endeavor; it is tragic and its practitioners should be brooding men, their idealism chiseled by hard experience into a prudent statesmanship. Nixon understood the tragic essence of political activity. His view of politics was out of a Robert Penn Warren novel, and his grasp of human nature was the thing of film noir. None of the ridiculous pretenses of the “post-political” world animated him. Nixon smiled with his intellect. He was happiest when engaged in the delicate tasks of statesmanship. One of the best examples of this intelligence was in his 1973 address to POWs at the White House.
Nixon was at home as a thoughtful teacher of intelligent citizenship. Given our currently dumbed-down population, I highly doubt Americans would understand the tensions and subtleties of Nixon’s fine address, nor appreciate that Nixon thought to speak in such serious terms to men fresh from captivity. The people now respond only to appeals to emotion—be they idealist or angry, the people crave Neronic politics, not the statesmanship of reflection that Nixon tried to offer them at every step. A culture that is dead to the political and believes citizenship is something that happens every few years at the voting booth would, of course, hate Nixon. It would be responsive to dumber and dumber slogans, not least of which is “it’s the economy stupid.” Nixon recognized, long before we fell completely apart, that “it’s actually the culture, stupid.” Republicans today would benefit from reminding themselves of what Nixon knew.
America’s Place in the World
Few people seem to have noticed that President Barack Obama just presided over the erasure of Richard Nixon’s crowning foreign policy achievement, which made the end of the Cold War possible—namely what is commonly referred to as Nixon’s “trip to China.” The significance of the trip, however, was not that it opened economic and political relations between China and the United States, but rather that it closed the economic and political relations between China and the USSR. Nowadays, American foreign policy is supposedly “reorienting” towards the Far East. It’s too bad that the Obama Administration hasn’t taken the time to learn from Richard Nixon on this note. After all, the United States has stupidly supported a coup d’état in Ukraine, thereby threatening Russia’s economic and political integration with its Western partners, thereby compelling Vladimir Putin conveniently to agree to the stern terms that Beijing demanded of a Russian-Chinese energy deal that is the greatest single economic arrangement between China and Russia since Nixon’s era.
The China-Russia deal had been under negotiation for almost twenty years, with both sides taking their time to iron out its details. Threatened by the recent debacle in Ukraine, Russia agreed to a pricing regime for natural gas far below what they had initially hoped to achieve, most likely calculating that an immediate re-orientation of Russian energy towards the East was necessary in light of the American and European sanctions confronting them. The effect of the deal will be that Russia, which had been integrating with the West for the last twenty-five years, caught between a pro-American Europe and a pro-American China, has now responded to President Obama’s sanctions by reviving its special relationship with China. So, while America can no doubt look forward to Ukraine naming a street after President Obama, just as one can find a George W Bush street in Georgia, the price for this is a renewed Russian-Chinese alliance. Yet the Republican party, rather than clobber Obama for such poor diplomacy, has instead helped all of this come to pass by clobbering Russia, as if geopolitics did not exist.
For President Nixon, geopolitics did exist, and applying wise international statesmanship as opposed to the dangerous alternatives of isolationism and foreign messianism, was a top priority. To do what Nixon did required exceptional intelligence, and knowledge of the complex history and relations between countries in the various parts of the world as well as patience. It wasn’t enough to just read the Declaration of Independence and hope for the best, or unreflectively lob bombs into foreign nations for short-term political gains. Nixon, to achieve what he did in China, had to really know what he was doing. Yet despite his example, the Republican party is still routinely labelled the “stupid party,” and it appears (given the antics of Sarah Palin and John McCain in foreign affairs) that Republican candidates go out of their way to demonstrate that they are as ignorant of foreign affairs as their voters. This is no good and unnecessary. In Richard Nixon, Republicans have an example of international statesmanship of the highest order, and were they to emulate him, they could find themselves once again seen as the party of adults. This is especially so now, when Republicans seem to be torn between interventionism and isolationism. Nixon, an enemy of both ideologies, offered an alternative which was difficult to sell to the nation, but effective: intelligent, patient, realistic statesmanship that understood that morality was best served in politics when it was effectively served.
Yet Republicans tend to focus more on Reagan as exemplifying the best in foreign policy. This is understandable: Reagan evokes memories of a strong and free America, respected abroad, triumphing over a Soviet tyranny that was hated by even its own people. Nixon evokes memories of an America that was undergoing domestic disintegration and losing its first foreign war. But, with all due respect to President Reagan, the only reason that Reagan could restore American military prestige and successfully counter the weakened Soviets was because Richard Nixon disentangled America from Vietnam, disentangled Russia from China, and refused to kowtow to those who spat on American soldiers while doing what he could to achieve “peace with honor” and save the lives of those soldiers.
Of course, despite his real and enduring achievements, Nixon never got a Nobel Peace Prize unlike America’s current commander-in-chief. Yet Nixon not only worked effectively for peace, he sought to teach Americans how to think about politics and war. His speech outlining American policy in Vietnam and asking the “Silent Majority” for support is brilliant and stands in stark contrast with President Obama, whose policy towards Afghanistan, though similar in some ways, is more incoherent than nuanced. The policy of Vietnamization itself, and the abandonment of Vietnam to the Vietnamese (not an unjust thing) in favor of a broader, geopolitical focus, were the foundations of Nixon’s attempt to lay the groundwork for the post-Yalta international order that came to fruition under President Reagan’s watch.
Nixon did the ugly, hard work that brought peace in our time and avoided nuclear war with the Soviets. His statesmanship is also the reason why China is today a vibrant market economy rather than a two-billion-man strong carbon copy of North Korea. Yet, as is usually the case, the fruits of Nixon’s work came decades after he had left office. We as a nation ignore them, because we do not like complex narratives, just as we ignore Nixon because we do not like complex men who are overly intelligent. Nixon’s foreign policy thought is perhaps the only example of a political approach that American journalists have remained incapable of putting into a sound bite. Nixon, to his credit, used rhetoric that never lent itself to over-simplification. Conservatives should reflexively recognize this to mean that Nixon was one of them, perhaps more than even they realize.
We like to imagine that Ronald Reagan spoke some tough words, rattled some sabers, flexed some muscles, financed some mujahedeen and a few Polish labor leaders and, presto, the Soviet Union collapsed. We then make the ominous blunder of believing that the Reagan Doctrine can be repackaged as a one-size-fits-all ideology, applicable in Iraq or Ukraine, requiring no thought, presenting no problems that a lower tax rate or a cruise missile cannot solve. Again, without meaning any disrespect to the Gipper, we ignore the far more complex and intellectually demanding details of the Nixon presidency at our peril. For Nixon is not remembered for a slogan or a sentiment, a catchy campaign or an idyllic effect. Nixon is remembered for really practicing politics in such a way that to emulate him, it is necessary to become educated about the world.
The Executive & Responsible Citizenship
Most importantly, Richard Nixon was the last president to so forcefully argue in favor of executive leadership, while being able to give an impressive example of it in an age when leadership was slowly giving way to celebrity as the defining factor in residential politics. Contrary to our Facebook era, Nixon came of age in a world where privacy was respected, and the social decorum of knowing the bounds in public vs. private situations still existed. Television and the intrusion of the boob-tube into practical politics had become a frustrating occurrence by the time Nixon ran against Kennedy, and had nearly catastrophic consequences when, during the Tet offensive, Americans realized that people die in war and that war is hideous and ugly, thanks to their television sets.
The tendency of the press to poison rather than elevate public discourse, to play on emotion rather than appeal to reason, was still in its infancy while Nixon was president, but over and over, the press’s appeals to emotion on Vietnam (which did nothing in practice to end the war, but quite a bit to sell newspapers and make journalists feel important) frustrated president Nixon’s attempts to use diplomacy and military means to achieve a decent peace in Vietnam. That so many millions of people could love John F. Kennedy, who bumbled us into a wider war by killing Diem and sending U.S. soldiers to Vietnam, while hating Richard Nixon, who did the hard work of getting us out of that awful quagmire without sacrificing America’s international standing, was only possible because of the malignant impact of modern media communications on American political life. Nowadays, Americans are finally more aware that the press does not conduct foreign and domestic policy, but does profit from the injection of emotion and sensationalism into the political organism of the nation. Sadly, we no longer have presidents willing to stand up to the media for the good of the country; instead, we have a generation of leaders who, like the characters from Sophie Coppola’s Bling Ring, crave media attention above all.
Certainly Nixon’s speeches indicate a man who was used to intelligence and rhetoric being the bread and butter of democratic politics and not at all comfortable with the camera and its ever-present reminder that he would be “seen,” but not necessarily listened to. Nixon’s political career matured during a time when you still had to stand in front of people and say things that were both smart and compelling, often while having to listen to some other fellow doing the same in opposition to you. Nixon was not unique in this. It was a trait shared by all American politicians up to Bill Clinton, who, as the first baby-boomer president, completed the transformation of American political culture into a celebrity culture. The “Yes-We-Can” generation, for whom even sound bites are often too difficult to grasp, represents in many ways the ultimate demise of civic culture and its replacement by celebrity politics.
Nixon, as president, was dark and brooding and did not behave like a movie star. This is because he understood that the body bags coming back from Vietnam were not coming off a John Wayne set, and they would not stop coming back because some kids occupied the student union of their local college. Nixon would never find himself taking a “selfie” while Americans died in Afghanistan, and the reason he always looked ridiculous whenever his handlers did things like put Elvis next to him or remind him to grin, is because he was too aware of the seriousness of the problems of presidential politics to suffer the lightness of being necessary to act the celebrity. As mentioned above, Nixon’s joy was clearly in the act of political existence and reflection. Nowhere is this more evident, paradoxically, than in the Nixon tapes.
The publication of the tapes were meant to destroy him, but they will serve instead to vindicate him and his view of the presidency in the eyes of serious citizens. On the tapes, Nixon is a patriot, contemptuous of intellectuals who forget that their intellects should serve the Republic, weary of unorthodox social arrangements, and above all, constantly wondering about America, rather than about himself. When he is self-centered, he is focused on the presidency, not on Richard Nixon. His overwhelming desire to protect the presidency and its capacity for independent reflection, independent utilization of council, and independent action are going to be seen in the future as some of the finest actions in pursuit of Constitutionalism.
Those who misidentify Nixon’s view of the presidency as being the basis for the growth of the “Imperial Presidency” misunderstand the difference between a strong executive within a Republic and the lawlessness of Empire. By working for peace and abandoning the democratic messianism that had marked American foreign policy from Woodrow Wilson through Harry Truman, Nixon did more to restore American constitutionalism than any president since Warren G. Harding’s return to “Normalcy.” What makes the Imperial Presidency of the present day so harmful is not the executive as an institution, but the imperial policy of the Republic. The Founders designed the Constitution for self-government, not for imperial government. The executive is meant to be strong when necessary for the protection of the Republic. If the mechanisms of Constitutional Republicanism find themselves being used for imperial ends, the results will serve neither republican nor imperial ends.
Empires require means which America’s Constitution was not designed to provide. This is why, as America has slid more and more into imperial political activity, it has also been such a catastrophically bad imperial actor. Americans as a people, and their institutions, are poorly suited for Empire. Empires conquer and exact retribution. They do not nation-build. They do not install democracy. They kill their enemies on a mass scale and enslave the survivors. The idea of a liberal imperialism or an Empire of Democracy is impossible, and the attempt to implement it futile. Richard Nixon made no such attempt. He accepted the geopolitical realities of his Presidency and used the executive office to maximum effect for the purpose of extracting America from regional war and crafting a more peaceful geopolitical order with the only partners he had at his disposal: the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Peace and diplomacy among America, China, and the USSR did more to move the Communist world towards freedom than Kennedy and Johnson’s wars.
By using the strength of the executive office to turn America away from the path of war and Empire and towards the path of peace and negotiation, Nixon neutralized the potential for an Imperial Presidency; for if America does not pursue imperial policy, it does not risk an Imperial Presidency. Nixon’s Presidency was not an Imperial Presidency; it was a strong, constitutional, and republican presidency. The strength of the executive office will be necessary for any future administration that desires to disengage American foreign policy from its recent disastrous imperial course. If we imagine that it takes an incredibly strong president to march the country to war, then surely we should realize that it takes an even stronger executive branch to extract America from imperial over-reach and restore Constitutionalism? Nixon, having been one of the few American presidents effectively to accomplish the task of ending war and bringing peace while maintaining national security, should be looked to as an example for future presidents.
The best scene in Oliver Stone’s film Nixon is the one in which a pretty girl tries to tempt Richard Nixon sexually, and he turns her down. Whether based on fiction or not, the scene communicates everything that is praiseworthy in Nixon’s character as a citizen and a statesman. Some may believe that the scene demonstrates that Nixon was, as he liked to call himself, a square. The stereotype of a square refuses the advances of pretty girls because the square doesn’t know what to do with a pretty girl. What people who think like this about Richard Nixon completely fail to understand is that Nixon did not refuse her advance because he didn’t know what to do with her, but because he’d already done it when he met his wife: married her.
Nixon wasn’t a square; he simply knew the proper place for romance and preferred a lifetime of romance to a one-night stand. He came from a generation that did not consider it a source of public bragging rights to sleep with a nice girl or make a fast buck, but to tie a woman to you for your whole life and to be known as a reliable worker. What was dark and tragic in Nixon found a home in the arena of darkness and tragedy: politics. Conservative Republicans would do well to re-examine his presidency with greater attention.
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The featured image is in the public domain and appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.