The Fog Of History: Reflections on Tricky Dick


I woke up this morning thinking about Richard Nixon. Mercifully, I didn't have devious, delirious dreams of him plotting with Haldeman and Ehrlichman. I just have Tricky Dick on my mind since this is the week it finally went down the terlet for him 40 years ago. He gave his abdication speech on 8/8/1974 and then resigned, gave the weirdest Presidential speech ever, and went off to Elba West. And yes, James Brown endorsed the Trickster in 1972. That papa had a brand new bag of dirty tricks. Good gawd y'all.

I'm not the only one with a Trickster earworm this week. There's a terrific interview at Salon with John Dean, whistleblower, Nixon historian and witness for the prosecution. Hmm, I make him sound like Marlene Dietrich in the Billy Wilder flick. Anyway, Dean is plugging his new book, The Nixon Defense, but he gave a wide ranging interview to David Daley. Read it and then come back after the break.

Welcome back but please do not bring Gabe Kaplan and the fucking sweathogs with you. Shit, I seem to be stuck in the Seventies. I'm worried that my shirt collars are about to grow and I'll find myself stuck on the side of the street because I rode in my buddy David's Pinto. Worst model ever. Another day, another digression.

So, let me say this about that and make one thing perfectly clear, John Dean made some excellent points to wit:

On the other hand, Nixon going back to his first campaign against Helen Douglas and “the Pink Lady” was a pretty nasty character. And he probably would have been right at home with the Tea Party today.

Exactly what I was going to say. He was an opportunist and I think he would feel very comfortable with the Tea Party.

Nixon fed off resentment, fear and hatred. He knew how to whip it up too. But he was a cad who would have used, manipulated, and abandoned the teabaggers after absorbing their energy. That's happening right now as "mainstream" GOPers are careening to the right. Nixon, however, was a cynic and an opportunist, it's hard to tell what he believed in except for Dick Nixon and I've been pondering the evil sumbitch most of my life. His instincts, however, were deeply right wing.

How should we see Nixon now? On one hand, there’s been some Nixon revisionism as Republicans turned so hard to the right that people look at OSHA, at the EPA, and say that Nixon was practically a liberal compared to conservatives today. 

Well, first I’m not sure if those are really Nixon. I heard some tapes — I didn’t put everything I heard in there, but there was clearly some stuff where Nixon is telling John Ehrlichman, who is something of a liberal/progressive — certainly a moderate at the time — who wants these ideas. And Nixon, in essence, tells him, go ahead and do whatever you want, just don’t get me arrested, or don’t get me in trouble. Not arrested, but you know, don’t get me politically in trouble for any of this stuff. So it’s really not Nixon driving any of this stuff.

To say that Tricky didn't give a shit about domestic policy is an understatement. In between whipping up the white backlash against desegregation and "forced" busing, Nixon blew with the wind on some issues in his first term. And the prevailing breeze was from the left. I would, however, give Pat Moynihan much of the credit for steering Nixon in that direction.

It's largely forgotten that Moynihan was a key domestic policy adviser to Nixon at the start of his first term. Trick Dick regarded him as a sort of Irish Catholic Democratic charm to keep the Kennedy comeback mojo at bay. For his part, Moynihan flattered Nixon shamelessly by comparing him to the 19th Century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Like Tricky, Disraeli was a conservative who was primarily interested in foreign affairs but his government enacted some bold progressive reforms. Disraeli, too, rose from humble origins but the analogy breaks down: Disraeli was known for his wit, charm and likability. He was even able to charm Queen Victoria who was suspicious of him as a converted Jew. Nixon had what Gore Vidal called "a strange uncharm" so HRH would not have been amused by his company.

Moynihan's influence began to fade after Teddy's fatal accident at Chappiquiddick ended his hopes for 1972. Nixon, in turn, began creeping rightward and would have gone all the way in his second term without a little thing called Watergate. Insecurity and fear of the Kennedys is something Nixon had in common with LBJ. Tricky played on it when he thought he'd be facing Johnson in 1968. Nixon had an instinct for finding an opponent's fears and paranoia and using it against them. It helped that he was an insecure, fearful paranoiac himself.

I've been pondering why some liberals think Nixon was kinda, sorta okay and much of it has to do with the fact that most of them weren't there. Or it could be a lack of serious study: I wasn't there but I know that FDR wasn't on the liberal wing of the Democratic party except for when it suited his purposes, and that liberals were deeply suspicious of JFK. It's more mysterious in Tricky's case because the tapes show him to be an opportunistic racist, sexist, anti-Semite. The Congress, however, had a moderate/liberal majority and the filibuster was only used on issues that Senators considered life and death for their constituents such as, alas, segregation for the peckerwood set.

Time for a baseball analogy. People who focus on the "progressive" parts of Nixon's record and ignore the essence of the man himself remind me of some raging Hall of Fame debates. One in particular: Dick Allen who played for the Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, White Sox and A's. Allen was one of the best hitters of his time so his stats are excellent and made better by his playing in a pitcher's era. Like Nixon, he had a tough childhood and was scarred by it. But like Nixon, he lived up to his nickname: Dick was a dick. He was a manager killer who was traded repeatedly in his prime, which was unusual for a superstar in the pre-free agency era. He couldn't even get along with low key player's managers like Red Schoendeinst in St. Louis or Walter Alston in Los Angeles and played only one season with each team. But his record is good so some people think he should be a hall of famer. Bill James begs to differ and I agree with the Master.

Topps Dick Allen White Sox

The *other* Dick has a superficially liberal record on domestic policy but to give him a pass on that is to ignore his extreme hawkishness on Vietnam, and the way his people undermined the peace process in 1968 so Tricky could get his evil ass elected. He just looks better in contrast to the teabaggers but as I said earlier he would have moved in their direction if he were around today. He would go where the votes were before doiing the old Tricky Dick two-step: seduce and betray.

I may loathe Nixon but I find him endlessly fascinating. Watching his administration unravel in real time was *my* formative political experience. It was back when Congress actually looked good. Talk about ancient history, y'all.

I'll give the man himself the last word. Here's his abdication speech, which was delivered on this date 40 years ago. I'll post the "my mother was a saint" farewell address tomorrow:



3 thoughts on “The Fog Of History: Reflections on Tricky Dick

  1. I’ve said it before — maybe even here — but it bears repeating: You cannot understand Nixon without having read Hunter S. Thompson’s writing about him. Thompson got him in all his complexity, succinctly. That skill will never win a Nobel, but students of 20th-century U.S. politics will still be reading Thompson a century from now.

  2. History is replete with fascinating characters who were also loathsome human beings. Nixon had so many dimensions of just plain nastiness that it was a wonder he didn’t just fly apart. He embodied so many despicable characteristics that it’s possible to miss whole segments of him. He was a bully, a thug, a coward, a rank opportunist, a racist, a creep, a race baiter, a red baiter, a sneaky little shit, an out-and-out fraud, a paranoid, and probably a dozen other things. They co-existed simultaneously in everything this venal little man ever did, and it was impossible to know except in retrospect which part of his personality was driving any particular sin. But he kept it all together under a smarmy veneer bolstered by a relentless PR campaign.

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