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Richard Nixon's complicated legacy

Publication Date : 10-08-2014

 

 “The right sort of sports fan,” is how McGeorge Bundy greeted the news in 1973 that Gerald Ford had been selected as vice president by Richard Nixon. Ford succeeded Spiro Agnew, who had been forced to resign because of corruption.

Appointing Ford could not save Nixon from the accelerating Watergate scandals. He did help the country recover following the disgraced president's own resignation, forty years ago this month.

Bundy had been national security adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was on the very long “enemies list” maintained by the Nixon White House, and personified the Eastern Establishment which used to run foreign policy and seemed to generate special resentment in Nixon.

Former football star Ford personified a classic American good guy. Perhaps that was one reason Nixon picked him. The president, by that time drowning in Watergate, seemed to sense what the country would need to recover from his political self-destruction.

Nixon personified how seeking national political office can become distorting torture. In the 1960 presidential campaign, most field reporters clearly favored Democrat John F. Kennedy over Nixon. Unfair jibes included observing the athletic Kennedy was sports minded, in contrast to narrow-gauge Nixon.

In reaction, relentless Richard became an expert on big-time sports — especially football. After each Super Bowl, Pres. Nixon telephoned the winning team (Pres. Ronald Reagan would call both teams). When massive anti-Vietnam War protests came to Washington, the White House announced that the president was unconcerned and planned to watch a football game. Sports became one more political tool, twisted in the process.

Nixon's political road was never easy, partly because of his own self-defeating ways. Though only newly elected to the U.S. Senate, he became Dwight Eisenhower's running mate in 1952. He was useful in part as a bridge between isolationist and internationalist Republican Party wing.

The youthful new thirty-nine year old vice president began to work relentlessly to build grass-roots support and a reputation for expertise. In 1960, East Coast backers of Ike bet on Nelson Rockefeller as Republican presidential nominee. Nixon took those expensive suits to the cleaners.

John Nance Garner as vice president suffered under FDR, and declared crudely the office was not worth a pitcher of warm spit. Nixon redefined and elevated the importance of the job. While feeding unrelenting ambition, he was also strengthening American government, especially given that vice presidents tend to become presidents.

Richard Nixon also deserves credit for accepting the challenge in 1960 to debate JFK, who privately credited those debates as crucial to his election. Video of the four encounters show both Kennedy and Nixon as informed, disciplined and effective. Presidential candidate debates are now a campaign requirement, thanks to Pres. Gerald Ford's generous willingness in 1976 to build on the 1960 precedent.

Pres. Nixon achieved significant durable policy successes. The SALT I treaties with the Soviet Union stabilised the arms race. The opening to China mitigated strategic costs of U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Fixed currency exchange rates were ended, reflecting new economic realities. The Environmental Protection Agency was created.

Nixon in retirement met regularly with aspiring young Republicans. When asked about controversy, he invariably replied that controversy could be helpful; be concerned instead about being boring, because when voters lose interest you're finished.

Richard Nixon as leader was rarely boring. His policy legacy is substantial. His cautionary political legacy includes the irony of surmounting great obstacles to achieve victory only to destroy himself.

(The writer is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” -NYU Press)

 

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