Nixon's Contempt for Those He Governed

May 20, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington -- If you heard the tear-jerking eulogies at Richard M. Nixon's funeral and wondered, as I did, what happened to the ''Tricky Dick'' you used to know, cheer up. You can hear a much more authentic-sounding Nixon in the newly published diaries of H.R. ''Bob'' Haldeman, the late president's late chief of staff and Watergate co-conspirator.

Published as ''The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House'' (Putnam), Haldeman's copious notes reveal a man with grand plans, but a narrow mind.

Early in his presidency, on April 28, 1969, for example, Nixon reflected on welfare reform and. according to Haldeman, ''emphasized that you have to face the fact that the WHOLE [Haldeman's emphasis] problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to.

''Problem with overall welfare plan is that it forces poor whites into same position as blacks. Feels we have to get rid of the veil of hypocrisy and guilt and face reality.

''Pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true. Says Africa is hopeless, the worst there is Liberia, which we built.''

On May 13, we hear Haldeman describe a Nixon meeting with Ralph Abernathy, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as ''pretty ridiculous. President handled beautifully. Abernathy went out and stabbed us on TV. Proved again there's no use dealing honestly with these people. They obviously want confrontation, no solutions. Pretty fed up with blacks and their hopeless attitude.''

The truly ''hopeless'' attitudes belonged to Nixon and Haldeman. Poor whites put by welfare ''in same position as blacks?'' What level did he assume them to be in before welfare came along? As for history never showing an ''adequate'' black nation, it's true that democracy has never had much of a foothold in Africa, but the same could be said of the former Eastern Europe.

On April 2, 1970, we read Haldeman saying that Nixon ''broods frequently over problem of how we communicate with young and blacks. It's really not possible except with Uncle Toms, and we should work on them and forget militants.''

I wonder what the late Sammy Davis Jr., jazz musician Lionel Hampton and the other blacks who were denounced as ''Uncle Toms'' bythe ''militants'' of those intemperate days would say if they knew that Nixon appears to have called them ''Uncle Toms'' too? Clarence Thomas, take note.

On Tuesday, February 1, 1972, Haldeman says, ''There was considerable discussion of the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media, and agreement that this was something that would have to be dealt with.''

Nixon displays a curiously high amount of antipathy toward Jews, despite his strongly pro-Israel policies and his use of two Jews, Henry Kissinger and William Safire, as important confidants. Nixon expert Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the Haldeman book's foreword and afterword, recalled on ABC ''Nightline'' that ''Nixon would say, 'Aw, goddamned Jews, ain't that right, Henry?' '' Mr. Ambrose recalled. ''And Kissinger would reply, 'Well, Mr. President, there are Jews and then there are Jews.' ''

All of which should send a message to any blacks and Jews who don't want to get along: There are people with real power in this society who are laughing at both of us.

Judging by the sound of Haldeman's candid comments, the Nixon White House had more than a communications problem with blacks and the poor. It had a motivation problem. Its chiefs were ignorant and didn't much want to learn.

As a result, the Nixon administration's effectiveness was compromised, even when it came up with a good idea, like the stunningly progressive welfare-reform program that was designed for Nixon by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now a Democratic senator from New York. Among other things, it would have set up a reverse income tax, guaranteed a minimum income to every American and reversed the incentives that imprison millions to welfare dependency.

Many Capitol Hill liberals balked, simply because it had come from the Nixon White House, whose concern for poor people was suspect, and the measure failed.

As a former poor kid myself, I can understand how Bill Clinton would admire Nixon's tenacity, his rags-to-riches success story and his effectiveness as a leader. But it is important to remember how Nixon blew a remarkably successful presidency because he didn't understand people enough to trust them.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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