We get the leaders we deserve

April 27, 1994|By Rene J. Muller

Richard Nixon divided Americans as few presidents before or since him have. The following article, which originally appeared in the Sept. 29, 1972 issue of the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, is excerpted from Rene J. Muller's "Alembics: Baltimore Sketches, Etc.," published by Icarus Books in 1992

IN A government such as ours we get no better leaders than we elect. In 1968, a plurality of American voters chose Richard Nixon to be the 37th president of the United States. We did this having had sufficient opportunity to know the record and the character of this man, who held national office for 14 years and had been a rather public private citizen for eight more.

It is not hard to recall that 1968 was a year of tragedy and convulsion for this country. When its citizens were frightened and divided, Nixon appealed to what was worst in us and we -- the silent majority -- responded affirmatively. Since his election he has made decisions that have exacerbated many of the problems he inherited and deepened the sense of opprobrium every sentient American must feel, whether these feelings are acknowledged or not.

We failed as a nation the day we elected Richard Nixon; we failed because we should have known better. For a man aspiring to the presidency, the tenor of his years as congressman, senator and vice president suggested that he had less character than the minimum required.

Even more disturbing than his 1946 campaign in California for Jerry Voorhis' congressional seat, his ravenous embrace of the McCarthy hysteria of the early '50s, or any number of other specific political acts that could be mentioned, is the absence anywhere in Nixon's career of a decision or choice that seems to have involved any kind of moral consideration.

Jung makes the distinction between the self and the persona, that mask an individual presents to the world as himself. In anyone's life there is considerable incongruity between self and persona, but with Richard Nixon the self seems to have been all but absorbed by the mask. Garry Wills has described Nixon as a self-made man who is utterly self-destroyed.

So, what does a self-destroyed man do when confronted with the kind of decisions that come to a U.S. president? He acts to preserve the mask, which in Nixon's case is principally his career. Nixon's self, from which any morally motivated act would have to originate, is simply too weak to compete with the drive to perpetuate the mask.

One of Nixon's first decisions after being nominated four years ago was to select Spiro Agnew as his running mate, with the explanation that if anything should happen to the president, Agnew would be the man best qualified to take over. Considering the ambience of political violence during that spring and summer, it is hard to see how such a decision -- and such an explanation -- could have resulted from deliberation within a morally impressionable self. An intriguing interpretation is that the choice of Agnew was directed by a blind need to preserve the mask from the threat of annihilation, in that by assuring no advantage would result, Nixon could at least reduce the chance of a "rational" assassination.

By 1968 it was clear that most Americans wanted to get out of Vietnam. The question was how, and under what circumstances. During the campaign Nixon said he had a plan to end the war, but he did not reveal it. We know now that plan was Vietnamization, and that it was doomed. Vietnamization meant more Americans, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese lives lost (more than one third of the Americans who died in Vietnam have died since Nixon took office); more physical destruction of both North and South Vietnam; more money diverted from the U.S. economy, which could have gone toward limiting a serious recession. And for what? A non-communist government in South Vietnam and a chance to leave with "honor"?

By 1968 the specter of a communist monolith had diminished and, with it, the argument that a friendly Southeast Asia was necessary to our security. It was also pretty clear that no &L long-term victory for the South was likely without massive and continuing assistance from us. Why then did Nixon persist with the war when the moral reasons for ending the fighting there we so compelling? He did so because these moral arguments cut no ice with him, because they did not impinge on the process of his making the decision at all. Richard Nixon is not, as has been suggested, an immoral man; he is an amoral man.

To Nixon, "honor" meant not losing face, the persona, the mask. He could not be the first American president to preside over what he considered a military defeat because the marginal self of this self-absorbed man could not absorb and withstand that blow to the face.

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