Sure, Dick Was Tricky, but So Was Honest Abe

I got a phone call the other day from a rollicking-voiced person at National Public Radio who wanted to audition me for a program the network was doing on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation. She wanted to know if I could babble on about how that event tied in with “America’s loss of innocence” and “the cynicism people have about the Government.” That’s the way they do it with these radio and television panels and their guest experts. First, they make sure your take is their take and, if it is, they put you on the air. I struck out.

I allowed to the lady on the other end of the phone that there are only so many times and occasions that a nation as old as this one can lose its innocence. We were supposed to have lost our national cherry during the Civil War and then grew it back in time to lose it in the disillusionment of World War I, after which America regrew the little, round, red fruit to be ready for history to pluck it away in the Great Depression, and then, quick, quick, we grew another, so as to be able to lose it at Pearl Harbor. There followed a respite of almost 30 years for the thing to bud, flower and ripen so it could be snatched away during Watergate.

America is the perpetual virgin in a Greek myth, growing a new hymen every time some Zeus-like bull jumps her from behind and gives her a screwing.

In another 25 years, the dumb clucks in front of the microphones will be able to celebrate a twofer, Nixon’s golden 50th, and Hillary’s, Bill’s and Monica’s silver 25th. It hasn’t been officially decided if the President’s panky-hanky with les girls is a genuine national cherry-plucker or merely deplorably bad taste, which fails to rise to the level of lost innocence. There’s a board of media personalities and experts who vote on those things, but the group hasn’t met yet.

In the meantime, Dick Nixon is back to get kicked around some more if people feel up to it. Apparently they do, since most of what we hear is what a rat he was or, from his defenders who still aren’t exactly numerous, that he wasn’t the first President to pull these stunts. This is about where the argument was quarter of a century ago, when the second Quaker President in our history got into the helicopter and dragon-flied off to California. (The first person who identifies the other Quaker President gets 25,000 frequent-flier miles on an airline of his or her choice.)

It isn’t yet time, evidently, to pull the camera back, so that instead of showing a close-up of Nixon’s much-photographed warts, we get a historical diorama. Is there nothing else to be said about the cyclonic political events that caught Richard Nixon in a cone of wind and carried him all the way to San Clemente? Is it just that simple, that he was a rat and we were innocent?

That appears to be the judgment of historians, political scientists and the weightier heads of journalism. For the most part, these types have long since abandoned the great-man theory of history in favor of explaining what happened in terms of trends, forces, cultures and the movements of sentiment among the masses, but if the great-man theory of history has been downplayed in the last half-century, the great-villain theory of history remains largely intact, or so it would seem in the treatment accorded Nixon. His fall still is described as a first-class louse getting his just deserts.

Whether or not Richard Nixon was of the species pediculus humanus or not, there is more to his destruction than the paranoid inversions of his brooding personality. His defenders have always maintained that he was a victim of a change in the rules of Presidential conduct, and that previous occupants of the office, notably Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, had done the same things Nixon was accused of doing. That’s not much of a defense, although the assertions are true. Furthermore, you could put Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman on that same list.

Those six men have one thing in common. They were all wartime Presidents. The first five threw people in jails and concentration camps, conducted burglaries and witch-hunted their opponents. In fact, three of them, Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt, did these things on a scale Nixon does not seem to have ever contemplated and certainly never attempted. The truth of the matter, when it comes to looking at the record of wartime suppression of civil liberties, is that Nixon may have been the least harsh of the six Presidents, though he was the only one punished for his deeds. The only wartime President who may be said to have had a spotless civil liberties record was William McKinley, who presided over the Spanish-American War.

Four of the Presidents were called upon to conduct a war in the teeth of significant and spirited opposition. They were Lincoln, Wilson and Johnson-Nixon. Whether or not Lincoln’s tearing up the Bill of Rights was justified by military necessity, as it may have been, looked at from a civil liberties point of view, his record was horrendous. No more so than Woodrow Wilson’s, who padlocked so many magazines and newspapers, jailed, exiled and intimidated so many people that his administration sparked the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union.

A war’s unpopularity and an administration’s reaction to it don’t correlate to visible, popular opposition. The Korean War was immensely unpopular, more so than the Vietnam War, if the public opinion polling in the two periods is to be relied on. Yet that war was fought with no public protest, as contrasted to the Vietnamese conflict, which called forth rallies, demonstrations and even riots on a scale unimaginable to Americans under the age of 30 or 35.

Opposition to the Civil War and World War I was primarily regional or found among immigrant groups (Irish and Germans), socialists and other radicals, the poorer sort of farmers and factory workers. Opposition to the Vietnam War was centered in the middle- and upper-middle class. The antiwar movement of the 1960′s and 70′s was braced and reinforced by a network of national organizations spun out of the civil rights movement, the professions, universities and important elements in the nation’s mainstream churches. No President could lock up and gag these people without having a terrific fight on his hands, as indeed Johnson, whom they ran out of public life, and Nixon found out.

The organized antiwar elements were able to do something that antiwar protesters of the past hadn’t a prayer of achieving-they were able to enforce the Bill of Rights and when it was violated they were able to inflict political punishment on the violators. The F.B.I., the red squads in the police departments of half a dozen major cities, the C.I.A., the Pentagon, the White House and the President himself were called to account for acts and activities that previous wartime administrations had routinely carried out without the slightest fear of being challenged.

So Richard Nixon’s defenders are correct when they say that the rules were switched on him. They’re wrong when they complain it was because he was hated by certain groups and people. He was indeed hated, but the rules were switched, not out of a feudish desire to get Dick the Prick but because of the war he had taken over from Lyndon Johnson and made his own.

Will the rules stay changed? Or will future Presidents and administrations again find overriding reasons of state to quietly lay the Bill of Rights aside? Given the chance, will politicians like a Hillary Clinton be more gentle toward those in her way than Richard Nixon or Woodrow Wilson? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.