Nixon: Last of the Great Liberal Presidents

April 26, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- No matter what its combination of triumphs and tragedies, any life defined primarily by tenacity must seem, at the end, a story of some bravery but even more melancholy. In Richard Nixon's long slog through various valleys of humiliation, to political triumph and disgrace and partial rehabilitation, there were many episodes of glory, but a constant griminess.

His political life turned on five close calls.

In 1948 he had the right hunch about Alger Hiss. Watching the Washington establishment rally around Hiss, Nixon honed his cynicism and stoked his resentments.

In 1952, his place on the ticket with Eisenhower jeopardized by financial dealings of a sort not uncommon at the time, Nixon, steadily more cynical, saved himself with the ''Checkers'' speech before the largest television audience in history to that time.

In 1960 he lost the presidency by a thin margin and perhaps by fraud.

In 1968, 18 years after he had last won an election on his own, he won a 43 percent victory.

And if in 1973 his lawyers had not sent the Watergate committee a memo containing an exact quote from a conversation with John Dean, the committee staff might never have thought to inquire about a taping system, and he would have completed two terms. But anyone thinking that Nixon deserved a better fate from Watergate should remember his silence as his brave daughter Julie crisscrossed the country defending him against charges he knew to be true.

He was an intelligent man despised by intellectuals. A man with a gnawing sense of his inferior education, he nevertheless brought into his administration two Harvard professors -- Henry Kissinger and Pat Moynihan -- and he also enlisted the services of other extraordinarily talented intellectuals, including George Shultz, James Schlesinger and Arthur Burns.

If we take as a simple but serviceable measure of modern liberalism's program the expansion of the central government's role as society's supervisor, Nixon's administration was more liberal than any, other than Lyndon Johnson's, since World War II.

In the Nixon years the federal government created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; it began racial quotas and set-asides; Nixon favored an enormous ''industrial policy'' project, the federal funding of the supersonic passenger aircraft; he proposed a guaranteed annual income; he instituted wage and price controls, the most sweeping intrusion of the state into society since the New Deal; he was smitten by John Connally, a Tory Democrat with a zest for government domination of markets.

Nixon's largest achievement was the opening to China. But as the architect of detente he probably prolonged the life of the Soviet Union. And although he fancied himself at daggers drawn with the nation's intellectual elites, he too made a fetish of arms control with the Soviet Union. That project was impossible until it was unimportant -- impossible because of the Soviet Union's hegemonic aims, then unimportant because the Soviet Union was imploding.

Nixon was spectacularly ill-suited by temperament to become president in the late 1960s, a moment of extreme cultural fragmentation. Traditional political preoccupations with economic redistributions were being supplanted by anxiety about the disintegration of the cultural unity of the post-war period. Lacking an articulable defense of the cultural values under siege, he became a vessel of smoldering animosities.

In the House of Representatives, where his ascent to national prominence began with his confrontation of Hiss, his career was closed by the Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings. His remaining 20 years were spent using his reputation for statecraft to regain some of the public's respect, and even the affection that often accrues to the tenacious.

Until his forced retirement from active politics, the acids of resentments had ulcerated his personality until self-pity was its strongest faculty. Politics is mostly talk, a lot of it small talk with strangers, at which Nixon was never comfortable. Rarely, and never contentedly, employed other than at politics, he measured out his life in forksful of chicken a la king with contributors and county chairmen. That is not good for the soul.

In his nationally televised farewell to his staff in the East Room on August 9, 1974, he read Theodore Roosevelt's words about the death of his wife: ''And when my heart's dearest died, the light went from my life forever.'' That equation of the loss of political office to the death of a loved one was terrifying testimony to the toll ambition can take on character.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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