May 5, 2013


Richard Nixon, hero of the American Left : He's justifiably reviled by historians, but Nixon's politics were far more progressive than we give him credit (EMMETT RENSIN, 5/05/13, Salon)

Far more interesting was just how progressive Nixon seemed to be. No less a liberal luminary than Gore Vidal endorsed in "Not The Best Man's Best Man" as:

The first President who acted on the not-exactly-arcane notion that the United States is just one country among many countries [...] [Nixon] went to Peking and Moscow in order to demonstrate to all the world the absolute necessity of coexistence.

The foreign policy accomplishments are well documented and, however begrudgingly, praised in left-wing circles. It was these very accomplishments that were seen as safe subject matter for the funeral. They are remarkable not just for their success, but for the fundamentally progressive content of their character: disarmament in the form of the SALT treaties, restraint in support of Israel, choosing trade with China over the ideological rigidity of absolute good versus evil -- these are the things that today's Democrats can only dream of, lest they be accused of weakness, appeasement, and surrender. To an Angeleno teenager living in the latter days of George W. Bush, it looked like saintliness.

Moreover, Nixon's unexpected leftism didn't end at the water's edge. On the domestic front, Nixon had instituted wage and price controls, founded the EPA, claimed that solar and wind power were the only option for the 21st century, rejected the extreme voices of his own party when they tried to give Spiro Agnew's job to Ronald Reagan (who Nixon called a "know-nothing") instead of the relatively moderate Gerald Ford. His record read like everything I wished my party could admit standing for and still get elected.

On the economy, Nixon declared himself -- and all of us -- to be Keynesians, saying flat out that the government does create jobs, siding with Paul Krugman, not Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand. On civil rights, he broke the 1959 Senate tie over strengthening the black vote in the former Confederacy; Senator John F. Kennedy sided with the South. As President he required affirmative action for federal contractors; Senator Sam Ervin, hero of the Watergate Committee, swore to fight integration to his last breath. On the environment -- beyond the EPA and renewable energy -- he halted dumping in the Great Lakes, passed the Clean Air Act, and formed a cabinet-level Council on Environmental Quality. He founded the Legal Services Corporation to assist the poor, opposed an amendment to protect school prayer, gave 18-year-olds the vote, ended the draft (finally), and was the first American president to propose the universal insurance mandate so hated by today's Republicans. Ted Kennedy killed the legislation (it wasn't liberal enough).

I began to play a game called "Guess Who Said It." The idea was to put two quotations on a political issue next to each other -- one from Richard Nixon, and the other from a well-known contemporary Democrat. Here's one with John Kerry on the topic of gun control. Guess who said it:

Let me be clear. I support the Second Amendment. I am a gun owner. I am a hunter.

I don't know why an individual should have a right to a revolver in his house [...] the kids usually kill themselves with it and so forth. Why can't we go after handguns, period?

Richard Nixon -- the Big Bad of American politics, the most universally condemned president of the last 100 years -- was to the left of John Kerry on gun control. In 1992, near the end of his life, he went on record saying flat out that "[w]e need gun laws stricter than the Brady Bill."

Of course, on all of these counts, the Nixon legacy is more complicated than I gave it credit for all those years ago. But by the beginning of my freshman year at the University of Chicago, I was a clear-eyed apologist for Nixon the Complex; a foot soldier for Nixon the Surprisingly Liberal, acting out my revisionist crusade, full of zealotry. I volunteered for the Obama campaign while I filled my dorm room with 1968 campaign posters. I argued for socialism in my freshman sociology classes while debating (to my parents' horror) any fellow liberal I could find on the 37th president. There didn't seem to be a contradiction -- my hero and my left wing values fell hand in hand.

In 15 short months, I had come from reflexively loathing to unconditionally loving The Great Boogeyman of American politics. From "Nixonland" to Nixonalia. From a toke to the needle. I was a Nixon junkie.

Posted by at May 5, 2013 12:29 PM

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