Monday, December 22, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

What’s the secret of Nixon’s unpopularity?

By
August 12, 2014 |

Most American presidents’ reputations improve after they leave office. In the warm light of history, once-derided chief executives seem to gain retroactive stature.

The most vivid example is Harry Truman, who left the White House during the Korean War with the lowest job approval ever recorded by Gallup – 22 percent! – but has since steadily risen in the eyes of historians and the general public. The same is true of Bill Clinton, who left office under a hail of ethics questions but is now considered a bona fide Wise Man by Democrats and even some Republicans. It’s even true of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose achievements on civil rights have almost balanced out the agonies of the Vietnam War.

But not Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon, who resigned 40 years ago this past Saturday, has somehow managed the opposite feat: A generation after his departure, he looks even worse.

“Emerson said that in time, every scoundrel becomes a hero, but that hasn’t been true with Nixon,” presidential historian Robert Dallek told me last week.

Whenever pollsters ask Americans who our worst presidents have been, Nixon is high in the running. Yes, a poll last month found Barack Obama in first place for “worst president” and George W. Bush in second, but that reflected partisan reflexes, not historical judgment. Nixon still finished third, 40 years after flying home to San Clemente – and unlike Obama and Bush, his detractors come from both parties.

What’s the secret of Nixon’s unpopularity?

He mostly has himself to thank. Not only did he order IRS and FBI investigations of his political adversaries, he rashly recorded almost every word he uttered. Historians are still feasting on the Nixon tapes, which show RN (as aides called him) to be even nastier and more obsessive than his opponents believed at the time.

There are the offhand racial and ethnic slurs: “Most Jews are disloyal…. The Irish can’t drink…. The Italians, of course, just don’t have their heads screwed on tight.” Mexican Americans “steal; they’re dishonest . . .  (but) they do have a concept of family life. They don’t live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like.”

But even before all that bigotry surfaced, the tapes helped convict Nixon (in the court of public opinion) of the crimes of Watergate in 1974. Successive releases have only made his culpability clearer.

“The tapes show how ugly he could be, his paranoia,” Dallek said. “It was a classic case of psychological projection: I manipulate and scheme, and everyone else must be like me.”

Here’s another excerpt from 1971, in which Nixon rages about the “mythology” that grew around his assassinated predecessor, John F. Kennedy:

“We have created no mythology,” Nixon complained. “For Christ’s sakes, can’t we get across the courage more? Courage, boldness, guts! Goddamn it! That is the thing . . . Don’t you agree, Henry?”

“Totally,” replied Henry A. Kissinger, his national security advisor. “Complexity and guts.”

But it’s not only the tapes.

Aside from Watergate – a gigantic “aside” – Nixon’s presidency wasn’t a failure. In domestic policy, he established the Environmental Protection Agency and administered the court-ordered desegregation of Southern schools. In foreign policy, he pursued nuclear arms control with the Soviet Union and, of course, opened a strategic relationship with communist China.

But Nixon’s legacy has been orphaned, even – especially – in his own Republican Party. In the wake of Nixon’s fall, GOP conservatives repudiated his big-government solutions and made Reagan, a small-government man, their champion and ideal.

Even in foreign affairs, where Nixon’s accomplishments were undeniable, his cold-blooded realism fell into disrepute. The tapes haven’t helped on that count either. Here’s Nixon as he orders new airstrikes against North Vietnam in 1972: “Punish them. And, incidentally, I wouldn’t be worried about a little slop-over. . . .Knock off a few villages and hamlets.”

Nixon’s most durable legacy, alas, may be the heightened cynicism and partisanship that has infected both parties ever since. “Nixon’s betrayal of the public trust fueled a general cynicism and antagonism that people have felt toward presidents and the federal government ever since,” Dallek told me.

And, surely without intending to, Nixon helped make the threat of impeachment a recurring feature of congressional debate. In 1998, Clinton was impeached (and acquitted) over his attempt to cover up his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. And legislators have called for the impeachment at various times of both presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

The difference, of course, is that Nixon’s impeachment was a bipartisan affair; it was Republicans who pushed him out of office, not Democrats. RN was ready to hang on and fight until Republican leaders in Congress told him that his base of support, even in their once-loyal ranks, was gone.

That’s why it’s worth looking back at Nixon’s fall from this vantage point, 40 years later. In honor of the anniversary, a crop of new books has appeared, including “The Nixon Tapes,” an excellent collection edited by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter, and “The Nixon Defense,” a day-by-day chronicle of Watergate by former White House counsel John W. Dean.

The volumes are enormous and depressing – but still worth reading. Anyone old enough to remember the lugubrious cadences of Nixon’s speech will find them strangely addictive. And anyone born after 1960 should at least take a look – to find out what real abuse of power and a real constitutional crisis look like.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 3 comments

The Daily Republic does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

  • DanielAugust 12, 2014 - 6:41 am

    Unpopularity? you haven't seen anything yet, wait until the destruction left in Obama's wake is analyzed while he's still out vacationing, partying, golfing and fund raising. Even the Clintons smell the blood and are pointing out the obvious.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Rick WoodAugust 12, 2014 - 8:49 am

    Nixon also appointed Arthur Burns as Fed chair and three members of the Supreme Court: Lewis Powell (moderate), Harry Blackmun (liberal), and William Rehnquist (conservatuve). Not bad.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Rick WoodAugust 12, 2014 - 8:52 am

    Conservatives and liberals alike argue that Nixon was our last great liberal president. He was enigmatic.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
.

Solano News

Christmas comes early to San Marco Street park

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A1, 5 Comments | Gallery

 
Travis squadron delivers Christmas gifts to East Tabor

By Ryan McCarthy | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Multiple car accident blocks I-80 in Vacaville

By Glen Faison | From Page: A3, 2 Comments | Gallery

 
 
 
 
Kitchen fire dislocates family for Christmas

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A4, 3 Comments | Gallery

Famous Creations’ toy drive and cupcake sale

By Daily Republic staff | From Page: A4 | Gallery

 
Last-minute shopping at Vacaville Premium Outlets

By Daily Republic staff | From Page: A4, 1 Comment | Gallery

Fairfield police log: Dec. 20, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A9

 
Suisun City police log: Dec. 20, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A9

Weather for Dec. 22, 2014

By Daily Republic | From Page: B10

 
.

US / World

Killer of 2 NYC officers had long criminal history

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1, 4 Comments

 
Killings of 2 New York officers trigger backlash

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1, 7 Comments

California puzzles over safety of driverless cars

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1, 4 Comments

 
Timeline of events before and after NY cop deaths

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

A look at the 2 NYC officers killed in ambush

By The Associated Press | From Page: A1

 
Pakistan makes arrests in Taliban school carnage

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

 
Tent city sprouts in shadow of downtown Detroit

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

 
US mulls putting NKorea on terrorism sponsor list

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

Satanic Temple puts up display at Michigan Capitol

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5, 7 Comments

 
Australian woman charged with murder of 8 children

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

Exit poll: Ex-regime official is Tunisia’s new president

By The Associated Press | From Page: A5

 
.

Opinion

Faust and the 2015 federal budget

By Mike Kirchubel | From Page: A8, 17 Comments

 
Obama, surgeon general still losing to NRA

By Francis Wilkinson | From Page: A8, 5 Comments

Let the music begin

By Colleen Britton | From Page: A8, 4 Comments

 
Editorial Cartoon: Dec. 22, 2014

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A8

 
.

Living

Community Calendar: Dec. 22, 2014

By Susan Hiland | From Page: A2, 1 Comment

 
Today in History: Dec. 22, 2014

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

Horoscopes: Dec. 23, 2014

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: B5

 
 
Horoscopes: Dec. 22, 2014

By Holiday Mathis | From Page: A7

.

Entertainment

TVGrid Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B6

 
‘Hobbit’ goes out on top with $90.6 million 5-day debut

By The Associated Press | From Page: B7

Good news from Tom Brokaw: His cancer is in remission

By The Associated Press | From Page: B7

 
Review: ‘The Interview’ deserves to be seen

By Jake Coyle | From Page: B7

Happy day: Elton John, David Furnish marry in England

By The Associated Press | From Page: B7

 
TVGrid Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B7

.

Sports

Kings snap 5-game losing skid, beat Lakers 108-101

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Burns gives Sharks late-night win over Blues in OT

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

The Week Ahead: Not much of a break for Christmas

By Paul Farmer | From Page: B1

 
Steelers, Packers win, move into playoffs

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Raiders knock Bills out of playoffs with 26-24 win

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Super-G crash makes Vonn wait in bid for record

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

NFL Roundup: Cowboys end 4-year drought, make playoffs

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2 | Gallery

 
7 hurt when lightning strikes near Tampa Bay game

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

India’s Arjun Atwal wins Dubai Open

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

 
Documents: FSU QB Winston cleared in conduct hearing

By The Associated Press | From Page: B2

.

Business

US companies eager to embrace Cuba face hurdles

By The Associated Press | From Page: B6

 
Survey: US gas prices fall 25 cents per gallon

By The Associated Press | From Page: B6

.

Obituaries

Marian Kay Zutz

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

 
Bart Ferro

By Nancy Green | From Page: A4

.

Comics

Wizard of Id Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Baby Blues Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Zits Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Get Fuzzy Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Pickles Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Rose is Rose Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Beetle Bailey Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Peanuts Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Garfield Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
For Better or Worse Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Baldo Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Blondie Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Dilbert Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
Frank and Ernest Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Sally Forth Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

 
B.C. Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B4

Crossword Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Cryptoquote Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Sudoku Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Bridge Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

Word Sleuth Dec 23

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: B5

 
Blondie Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

Beetle Bailey Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

 
Garfield Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

B.C. Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

 
Wizard of Id Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

For Better or Worse Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

 
Get Fuzzy Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

Baby Blues Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

 
Baldo Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

Zits Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

 
Peanuts Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

Dilbert Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

 
Sally Forth Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

Pickles Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

 
Rose is Rose Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

Frank and Ernest Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A6

 
Word Sleuth Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A7

Crossword Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A7

 
Sudoku Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A7

Cryptoquote Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A7

 
Bridge Dec 22

By Daily Republic Syndicated Content | From Page: A7