Death by Irrelevance

Death by Irrelevance

Mini Teaser: Rockefeller, Lindsay, Scranton—just three of the “moderates” who failed to keep the GOP from the clutches of Goldwater and Nixon. Geoffrey Kabaservice laments their defeat with a wistfulness that obscures from him their true frustration.

by Author(s): John R. Coyne Jr.

THE CONFUSION extends to the leading bad guy. He gives Richard Nixon credit for creating the occupational-safety agency called OSHA, for expanding rights for women and Native Americans, and for boosting financial support for education, cancer research and drug abuse. Also, although not mentioned, the Nixon administration developed the first—and last—comprehensive plan for a national energy policy. With his creation of the EPA and the initiatives that form the basis for our environmental legislation today, Richard Nixon could legitimately be called our first and only green president.

But that would be a step too far. His environmental proposals, Kabaservice writes, “did not spring from real convictions but from his political need to respond to rising public concern about pollution.” To which a reader might respond, what else does a career politician respond to, if not public concerns? And how does the author know what Nixon really thought? But Richard Nixon does that to some people of liberal persuasion.

“Richard Nixon,” writes Kabaservice, “had been simultaneously the moderates’ greatest ally and enemy.” Lee Huebner, former president of the Ripon Society and deputy director of White House writing and research during the Nixon administration, where we worked together for a time, is a man of solid principle who gives the president his due, as seen by a sincere Riponite. As Huebner tells it, he brought with him to the White House a list of major Ripon policy objectives. “Virtually all became part of the Nixon program, including revenue sharing, welfare reform, government reorganization, an end to the military draft, and normalization of relations with China.”

Although there’s little in-depth discussion of foreign policy here, Kabaservice gives high marks to Nixon for his opening to China, noting that “the globalized world in which China now plays such a large role is to some extent Nixon’s creation.” In other areas of foreign policy, he writes, moderates gave credit to Nixon for his summit meetings with Soviet leaders and the SALT talks.

But overshadowing those accomplishments, including China, was the war in Vietnam. In contrast to his brief comments on Nixon’s opening to China, Kabaservice devotes abundant space to the war and its various liberal and moderate opponents. In the process, however, he fails to see the connections between Nixon’s overall foreign policy, the China trip, the balance of power in the world, the end of the war, and the restoration of calm to the streets and campuses.

Nor did most liberals at the time. Occasionally, there’s a sneering reference from someone such as New York senator Charles Goodell to Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war. (Goodell, who like many moderates wanted immediate and full withdrawal, lost his Senate seat in 1970 to James Buckley, Bill’s brother and candidate of the Conservative Party.) But despite the sneers, there was in fact a plan, first outlined in a 1967 article prepared by Nixon for Foreign Affairs and carefully reviewed by former president Eisenhower, who is quite properly held up by Kabaservice as a custodian of political and ideological Republican centrism. The significance of the Nixon article was explained perceptively by David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon Eisenhower in their recent, splendid memoir of David’s grandfather.

The Nixon strategy, as developed in the article, involved a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam—in essence the greatest retreat in U.S. history—executed under harrowing military conditions in the field and equally harrowing political conditions at home. This delicate and politically dangerous operation was accompanied by the intense diplomacy of Henry Kissinger that led to the new relationship with China. The Soviets were thrown badly off balance and never recovered (this in fact may have been the first stage in the process that ultimately destabilized the Soviet Union). Mao took steps to discourage the North Vietnamese, and Nixon and Kissinger would go on to bring a successful end to the war (a result sadly negated by Congress after Watergate). And, by eliminating the major cause of so much domestic unrest, Nixon also restored a significant measure of national tranquility, aided by his decision to end the draft.

Thus, Nixon’s “secret plan,” the object of widespread derision among liberals, was actually a comprehensive and far-sighted geopolitical strategy that resulted in a distinct shift in the global balance of power. To paraphrase the historian Margaret MacMillan, Nixon pulled off a rare and remarkable example of a statesmanlike vision successfully shaping reality. And at that moment in history, only Richard Nixon could have done it.

Because of Watergate, which Nixon called “that silly, silly thing,” and because of the genetic hatred he engendered among moderate elitists still smarting over his role in unmasking the Soviet spy Alger Hiss, Nixon may never get the credit he deserves for his accomplishments on the world stage. For the foreseeable future, he’ll probably be treated as he is here—a strange, flawed man, neither liberal nor conservative (although, as Bill Buckley put it, “conservative enough”), wearing whatever mask was politically expedient at the moment.

Kabaservice speaks of the moderates who “wanted Nixon to embody leadership qualities of balance, toleration, and magnanimity that were not in his nature.” If Kabaservice can actually tell us what qualities were inherent “in his nature,” he’s much more than a mere historian. But no one ever went broke positing pop-psychological explanations for Nixon’s behavior. In any event, Kabaservice is probably correct in saying Nixon’s “turn against the moderate Republican movement in 1970 ultimately ended it as a viable political force.”

But hostility runs two ways, and perhaps it could also be said that “the moderate Republican movement,” at times seeming to undercut the efforts of the elected leader of its party in a time of great stress, was inconsistent, often incoherent, operating on pure emotion and advancing contradictory and counterproductive short-term policies. At the same time, Nixon was attempting to implement an intricate and well-thought-out plan for extricating us from the morass in Vietnam created by the best and brightest of the moderate elites, restoring domestic order and reconfiguring the global balance of power.

Despite extraordinary opposition—and what a bad guy might call disloyalty—many of the most important of these objectives were achieved. And had it not been for Watergate, they might well have been realized in full by the end of Nixon’s second term. Then Kabaservice would have written a very different book, and the coroner’s report on the fate of that “moderate Republican movement” would have read “death by irrelevance.”

John R. Coyne Jr. is a former White House speechwriter and the coauthor of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement.

Pullquote: Kabaservice blames conservatives for knocking his moderate Republicans off the electoral maps. But viewed objectively, it was the American people who did that.Image: Essay Types: Book Review