Monday, November 15, 2010

The Nixon Dilemma

The summer and fall of 2010 have been, in terms of my literary tendencies, devoted to the life of Richard Milhous Nixon. The 37th President of the United States, of course, and a man unfortunately but unavoidably known best for his resignation under intense fire for a host of scandals and cover-ups commonly lumped together under the term Watergate.

The grade school history we all know doesn't tell the story of Richard Nixon. For a full four decades historians, scholars, politicians and the general public have approached the presidency of Richard Nixon, and the man himself, as utterly devoid of principle or accomplishment. "Corrupt" is as much of a fundamental descriptor of Nixon as saying he is a Duke Law graduate, or a Californian. The words Nixon and unethical have become virtually synoynmous. This is a grossly naive oversimplification of a complicated man serving his country in complicated times.

We judge the entirety of Nixon's body of work in the harsh light of Watergate. I am not prepared to argue that this is avoidable, or even unfair, but rather that it limits our perspective and paints a woefully incomplete picture of a man who was a intregral part of American political thought for half a century.

Most of Nixon's public life occured long before Watergate became front page news in the Washington Post. Of course, nearly the entirety of the scholarship dealing with the Nixon life and presidency was done after Watergate. As a result his life before Watergate is judged using an ethical standard guaranteed to fit the scholars' idea of Nixon as completely corrupt and without moral compass or core beliefs.

With Nixon we assume the worst, always. If he compromised on a policy issue, it was because he lacked a principled positon on the issue. If he took some action that Democratic politicians supported, it was a callous attempt at preemption and stealing votes from the opposition. Reading the collected library of Nixon biographies, one quickly determines that Nixon was not devoid of fundamental core beliefs. He believed strongly that the United States could be a tremendous force for good in the world. He gets little credit for his robust commitment to civil rights, including school desegregation. He rejected the conventional wisdom of the Republican "China lobby" by forging ahead with relationship building with communist Peking. Civil Rights and normalized relations with communist China weren't exactly vote-getters in the early Seventies. Nixon did these things because he thought they needed doing.

But moreover, historians judge Nixon's entire career using a rubric that no politician could ever meet. Because of the stain of Watergate, every other accomplishment of his long public career must be proven beyond reproach; an impossibly high bar even for those politicians we tend to deify. Nixon's biographers are some of the most unapologetically biased scholars one can study, mostly because they believe themselves to simply be reinterpreting a well-established part of the Nixon story, as fundamental as his birth and death. No Nixon biography should ignore Watergate, but none should ignore Nixon, either.