Jacob Heilbrunn

The War Against Richard Nixon: Woodward and Bernstein Overlook the Right

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reprised their starring role during Watergate by issuing a lengthy examination of Watergate and Richard Nixon in the Washington Post this past Sunday. Their essay was accompanied by an article from Leonard Downie bemoaning the disappearance of the kind of investigative reporting practiced by Woodstein, as they were once known. The gist of the new Woodward and Bernstein piece is that they were were even more right than they knew. They suggest that Nixon had launched a "criminal enterprise," a multifront war—against the media, the Democratic party, the antiwar movement and so on—and that Watergate was simply part of a greater complex. They also include bloodcurdling remarks by Nixon about the supposed perfidy of Jews.

In reading their essay, it is not always easy to detect any real revelations. That Nixon had a dark, pathological side and said very nasty things about his real and perceived enemies is not news. But Woodward and Bernstein's object appears to have been to nip any revisionism about Nixon in the bud—the notion that he was not really such a bad fellow. Woodward and Bernstein adduced a book review by a former Nixon aide named Frank Gannon, who suggested that many questions about Watergate remained open. Whether that review is worthy of the significance that Woodward and Bernstein invest in it is questionable.

But there is more to it than that. Is it really only Nixon loyalists who are trying to polish Nixon's reputation? Or is it, rather, liberals who have started to look more fondly at a president they have come to regard as one of them? A closet liberal. Someone who deviated from conservative orthodoxy. A president who can be held up as the antipode of the right-wingers in Congress who expostulate about rolling back big government. Nixon, after all, created the Environmental Protection Agency. He supported the Philadelphia Plan, which relied upon racial quotas. Stephen F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute observes,

It was under Nixon that social spending came to exceed defense spending for the first time. Social spending soared from $55 billion in 1970 (Nixon’s first budget) to $132 billion in 1975, from 28 percent of the federal budget when LBJ left office to 40 percent of the budget by the time Nixon left in 1974. While Nixon would criticize and attempt to reform welfare, he nonetheless approved massive increases in funding for other Great Society programs such as the Model Cities program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of the changes in spending policies that Nixon supported, such as automatic cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients and other entitlement programs, contributed to runaway spending trends in successive decades.

Nor is this all. He and Henry Kissinger tried to wind down the arms race. They pushed for détente with the Soviet Union. They recognized China. They did not try for all-out victory in Vietnam—instead, they pushed "Vietnamization." So some liberals have begun to look more fondly upon Nixon.

Woodward and Bernstein also overlook another, related aspect to his presidency. It was the Right that went to war against Nixon, not just the Left. Nixon was pilloried by the budding neoconservative movement for abandoning the fight against communism. The old cold warrior, the exposer of Alger Hiss, it was suggested, was now capitulating to the Reds. And it wasn't just the neocons who were in high dudgeon. Conservatives were in despair as well. As David B. Frisk reports in his new book If Not Us, Who?, a group centered around the National Review, which included William F. Buckley Jr., Frank Meyer and members of the American Conservative Union, also voiced its disappointment with what it saw as Nixon's compromises. The group called itself the Manhattan Twelve—its manifesto deplored "excessive taxation" and "inordinate welfarism" and was published in the National Review.

The Right was restless. It didn't trust Nixon. So in 1972, Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook ran against Nixon in several Republican primary states. His famous statement about Nixon was "we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop but then we realized he was a centipede." His aim was to represent the true conservative voice—one that would emerge in full flower with Ronald Reagan in 1980, who essentially repudiated the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign affairs by substituting a combination of the old rollback doctrine and neoconservative anticommunism. Nixon had become a ghostly presence in the GOP. He worked assiduously at his rehabilitation, but his efforts did not take place within the GOP. Rather, Nixon sought to transform himself into an elder statesman with his books on foreign affairs and visits to Russia.

Why exhume this history? Merely to suggest that the Woodward and Bernstein essay does not tell the entire story. Indeed, it might be fair to conclude that what is new in the piece is not interesting and what is interesting is not new. The authors suggest that the new information simply confirms their original hunches and conclusions. Woodward and Bernstein wrote the first draft of history and provided the material evidence that people needed to make the moral judgment that the times called for. But with greater distance and perspective, it seems clear that Nixon did not represent the high point of the imperial presidency. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have gone further in foreign affairs than Nixon ever did, the former in authorizing torture, the latter in personally signing off on the assassination of terrorists, including an American citizen. Next to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Nixon was a piker. Of course, the excesses of Nixon should not be waved away. But they can also be viewed in a broader context than Woodward and Bernstein appear prepared to allow. Like some of Nixon's aging and dwindling and die-hard defenders, they are stuck in something of a time warp.