The Neverending Debate: The Legacy of Richard Nixon

"A tragic figure whose political brilliance and often sound intentions were overwhelmed by his own outsized flaws."

As we hit the fortieth anniversary of the only presidential resignation in our history, it’s a good occasion to explore the two fundamental views of Richard Nixon, which correspond to the two views of politics—and, for that matter, two views of life. In that way, perhaps, we can derive some meaning from the man who brought down upon himself the greatest degree of political obloquy in the American story.

One view is that Nixon was simply evil—always had been, always would be. Ultimately and inevitably, his evil was exposed, and the nation expelled him. Yet the Nixon-as-evil adherents never quite seem satisfied with his political fall and humiliation. They were outraged when his unelected successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned the man, thus depriving them of the thrill of seeing him escorted off to jail in handcuffs. Even four decades later they seem obsessed with this disgraced figure and his ongoing evil.

A distilled example of this outlook is Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who writes that Nixon “fouls our politics to this very day.” This because he devised a “Southern Strategy” that brought disgruntled Southern conservatives, theretofore Democrats, into the Republican Party. This, suggests Cohen, has distorted our politics ever since. It was “morally reprehensible.” Nixon, he writes, was “a man of such character flaws, resentments, hatreds and insecurities that it’s hard to keep your eyes off him.” The Nixon-as-evil people will never take their eyes off him and never stop blaming him for whatever ills they perceive in the nation.

The other view is Nixon as tragedy. This view fully acknowledges his character flaws, including his insecurity, resentment and urge to lash out at those he perceived as enemies. But they see other, larger qualities in the man that contributed to some serious political accomplishments. Thus, those character flaws emerge as tragic flaws and Nixon emerges as a tragic figure, like Lear or the Mayor of Casterbridge. This is a far more interesting story that perhaps requires a bit more human perspective to understand.

An exploration of the two views of Nixon might begin with an exploration of Cohen’s thesis that Nixon fouled the American polity for decades with his Southern Strategy. As explained in his column, the story goes like this: Southern white voters, by tradition stretching back to the Civil War, had been Democrats, but with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, enacted under Democratic auspices, those Democrats became alienated from their party. Along comes Nixon and invites them into the Republican Party, thus turning the GOP into a party of racism. He notes that, before this Nixon action, the Republican Party had been “largely unencumbered with a Southern constituency,” and many African-Americans voted Republican. But now, he says, just look at the GOP, filled with the “fellow travelers” of racists—“creationists, gun nuts, anti-abortion zealots, immigrant haters of all sorts and homophobes’’—in other words, enemies of “modernity.” Thus, in Cohen’s view, Nixon’s Southern Strategy paved the way for every nut and kook that agitates the serenity of Cohen’s morning coffee time.

“The worst thing Richard Nixon ever did,” writes Cohen, “was tell racists they had a point and welcome them into the party of Lincoln.”

This cries out for some historical perspective, and the pursuit of perspective gets us right to the heart of the two views of Nixon. Cohen quotes Wikipedia, of all entities, as saying the Southern Strategy was an appeal “to racism against African-Americans.” Wikipedia also says that it represented a search for “a middle way between the segregationist [George] Wallace and liberal Democrats, whose support of integration was alienating some Southern voters.”

You wouldn’t know it from Cohen’s column, but this was a time of serious racial tensions in America. The civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, a necessary corrective to a century of abuse in race relations, nevertheless unleashed significant political consequences. Opponents, or their children, had to come to terms with it, and serious political analysts understood that that would occur only over time. But in the meantime, the issue presented some raw political nerves and delicate political challenges.

On top of that, the country experienced some ominous race riots in major cities, not in the South but in the North—Los Angeles in 1965; Detroit, Newark and other cities in 1967; Washington, D.C., and many other cities in 1968. History tells us that few developments generate more political anguish than riots in the streets that turn violent and bloody (just behind serious economic dislocation). Americans expect their government to maintain domestic order and tranquility.

Into this political maelstrom strutted that bantam rooster of a politician, George Wallace of Alabama. Running as an independent presidential candidate in 1968, he collected 10 million ballots, 13.5 percent of the popular vote. He carried five states with forty-six electoral votes. This was a pretty serious development, reflecting the country’s lingering need to absorb the new civil-rights realities and to grapple with race riots that were both ominous and scary to many Americans.