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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Excerpt from The Age of Nixon
by Carl Freedman
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"I believe the second half of the twentieth century will be known as the Age of Nixon. Why was he the most durable public figure of our time? Not because he gave the most eloquent speeches, but because he provided the most effective leadership. Not because he won every battle, but because he always embodied the deepest feelings of the people he led."

-Robert Dole

"Nixon's entire political career--and in fact his whole life--is a gloomy monument to the notion that not even pure schizophrenia or malignant psychosis can prevent a demented loser from rising to the top of the heap in this strange society we have built for ourselves in the name of "democracy" and "free enterprise." For most of his life, the mainspring of Richard Nixon's energy and ambition seems to have been a deep and unrecognized need to overcome, at all costs, the sense of having been born guilty--not for crimes or transgressions already committed, but for those he somehow sensed he was fated to commit as he grappled his way to the summit .... Nixon really was "one of us"--not in Conrad's sense of that term, or my own, but as an almost perfect expression of "the American way of life" that I'd been so harshly immersed in for the past eight or nine months of traveling constantly around the country .... Jesus! How much more of this cheapJack bullshit can we be expected to take from that stupid little gunsel? Who gives a fuck if he's lonely and depressed out there in San Clemente? If there were any such thing as true justice in this world, his rancid carcass would be somewhere down around Easter Island right now, in the belly of a hammerhead shark".

-Hunter S. Thompson

"Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty. Always remember: Others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win--unless you hate them. And then, you destroy yourself."

-Richard Nixon

* * *

After moving into the White House, Nixon instituted another important innovation that has also become routine: the permanent campaign. Of course, most presidents had generally desired to serve more than one term and hence necessarily gave some thought to the possible electoral consequences of their policies. But with Nixon the next election became not one factor among others but the central organizing principle of the executive branch. After more than a quarter of a century of experience with campaign organizations, Nixon recognized that the White House could be the mightiest campaign organization of all; and he meant to use it as such from day one, in ways legal and illegal. (One might argue, however, that Nixon kept his law-and-order pledges of 1968 in the sense that few, or maybe none, of the crimes of the Nixon White House were committed by anyone of African descent.) A second term became the overriding goal of the first term, and Nixon sought it in every possible way: by raising unprecedented amounts of money for his campaign fund; by violating his own neoclassical economic principles to stimulate the economy and to produce what at least looked like prosperity during the 1972 election season; by announcing (through Henry Kissinger) the imminent end of the Vietnam War just before the 1972 vote; most famously, of course, by instituting an intricate series of crimes and dirty tricks against the Democrats, especially Senator Edmund Muskie, whom conventional wisdom held through most of Nixon's first term to be his strongest potential opponent; and, above all, by structuring nearly every decision, great or small, on the basis of public relations. It was no accident that H. R. Haldeman, the chief of staff of Nixon's White House and his most trusted adviser, had his professional background not in law or scholarship or government or the military but in advertising.
     Curiously enough, Nixon himself often seemed to signal the political basis of his policy decisions--though by way of negation, that is, by elaborate denials of his electoral calculations. In announcing the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, for example, he spoke at odd--and, one might have thought, unseemly--length about the effect this military operation might have on his own career. He claimed that the invasion could result in his being a one-term president: just as two decades earlier he had sometimes prefaced his attacks on Helen Douglas by saying he knew that talking about Communism was not the popular thing to do. It was all as if Nixon's political yearnings were so strong, his desire to make contact with the electorate so intense, that he had to talk about them, even if in inverted and absurd ways. Furthermore, it seems highly probable that, as 1972 approached, Nixon's lust for one last big win must have been especially keen. He had not, after all, enjoyed a landslide that was unambiguously his own since the victory over Douglas in 1950. The landslides of 1952 and 1956 obviously belonged more to Eisenhower than to him; 1960 was a loss, though a close and even unfair one; 1962 was a loss indeed; the results of 1966 were gratifying, but he himself had not been on any ballot that year; and in 1968 the Wallace candidacy had deprived him of the overwhelming victory he might otherwise have won. But 1972 would be different, and his strategy could not have been more successful--though helped along, it must be said, by much bumbling amateurism within the Democratic campaign of Senator George McGovern. Nixon took over 60 per cent of the popular vote, winning the biggest numerical landslide and the second-biggest percentage landslide in history. He carried every state but Massachusetts, and became the first Republican nominee to win a majority of such traditionally Democratic groups as blue-collar workers, Roman Catholics, and members of labor-union households. His triumph was complete.
     It was a spectacularly personal triumph, and quite deliberately so. As we have seen, one constant factor in Nixon's career had been his identity as a party man, as the ultimate Republican partisan. But in 1972 he pretty much abandoned his party. Perhaps he reckoned that, as this was his final race, he would not be needing the GOP again. Perhaps he could not bear to have his own victory in any way diluted. Whatever the reasons, he took nonpartisanship and personality cult much further than Eisenhower had ever done. He marginalized and even humiliated the regular party machinery of the Republican National Committee, while concentrating resources in his own Committee to Re-elect the President (which Senator Robert Dole, the chairman of the RNC, promptly dubbed CREEP in retaliation). When faced with the choice of helping a Republican candidate in a tight race or just rolling up a bigger margin for Nixon in a state he was certain to carry anyhow, the Nixon campaign again and again chose the latter. This policy turned out to be rather unwise during the depths of Watergate--not only because the Democrats had retained secure control of both houses of Congress, but also because many Republicans in those bodies began to doubt that they owed Nixon any greater loyalty than he had recently displayed toward them. But, in the short run, Nixon achieved exactly what he intended.
     The foregoing summary of Nixon's electoral career, though necessarily brief, has proved, I trust, what many people still find difficult and uncongenial to grasp--that Richard Nixon, despite what might have appeared to be fatal disadvantages, was one of the most successful and popular electoral politicians of our history. When Senator Dole, speaking at Nixon's funeral, described the second half of the twentieth century as the Age of Nixon, he seems to have been thinking mainly of geopolitical trends, and doubtless he exaggerated, as funeral orators often do. But if one were to seek a term to describe our domestic politics from the end of the Second World War until the middle 1970s, one might indeed choose Dole's felicitous phrase. Astonishing as it will sound to many, Nixon was the most durable hero of our politics between the era of Roosevelt and that of Reagan.
     There is a further important point to be made here. The depth of attachment that Nixon established between himself and the American electorate can be gauged not only in his many successes but in his ultimate failure as well. Nixon, as everyone knows, left the political scene in disgrace. The movement against him in Congress was no narrow partisan vendetta like the impeachments of Clinton or Andrew Johnson, but an overwhelming and fully bipartisan tidal wave: had he not resigned before the final votes were taken, he would have been impeached by the House with only three dissenting votes, and removed from office by the Senate with probably no more than ten votes for acquittal. And yet, even as this ultimate political catastrophe approached--as the likelihood of his having used the powers of his office to commit serious felonies against the nation's constitutional order rose from high probability to near-mathematical certainty--as the nation's political and journalistic establishment turned decisively against him--as much, even, of his own White House staff decided that there was no way Nixon could or should survive politically--still he inspired widespread loyalty and love in the country. Contemporary polling data are difficult to interpret with precision, but they suggest that even at his most unpopular point he retained the allegiance of something between a quarter and a third of the nation. For ordinary political purposes, this is, of course, a disastrously low approval rating for a president (though comparable to the lowest ebb of Truman's popularity). Yet, in absolute numbers, it still represents a huge minority of Americans, tens upon tens of millions of them. It also highlights a gulf, at the end, between popular and elite opinions of Nixon, whose standing with the people was thus roughly thirty times as high as with the House of Representatives.
     Furthermore, there is reason to believe--though the point is hard to document--that a great deal of Nixon's support was just as intense as any hatred for him on the other side. Very little of this love for Nixon came from people who were in a position to make their views generally known; and those few who were, often struck an almost comically weird note. There was the Indiana representative who, as he watched all but two of his colleagues decide for impeachment, declared that he would stand with Nixon "even if he and I have to be taken out of this building [the U.S. Capitol] and shot" (not an unappealing image for many on the anti-Nixon side). There was the Massachusetts rabbi who began agitating full-time for "fairness" to the president, because, as he told Nixon, "In my heart, Mr. President, you have grown tall like the cedars of Lebanon." But such public silliness was just froth at the top of a deep, constant sea of intense pro-Nixon feelings. As newspaper after newspaper editorialized that Nixon should go, a fair percentage of letters to the editor pleaded even more strongly that he must stay. In taverns across the nation, there was never a lack of amateur pundits who pounded their fists on the bar and declared their support for the president. At no time was there less than a huge slice of the American middle class who identified Nixon's deepest aspirations with their own and who felt with certainty that Nixon's opponents were just the sort of people who most despised them. Whatever else one may say of the hard-core Nixon following, they were certainly not fair-weather friends (unlike Nixon's more influential one-time supporters in politics and journalism). On the contrary, the disgraced and persecuted Nixon of 1974 may, in their eyes, have been an even more lovely figure than the triumphant landslide winner of 1972.
     Adapting the words of Nixon's favorite predecessor in the White House, one might say that he was deeply in tune with most of the people most of the time and with some of the people all of the time. Long before Watergate, the journalist Tom Wicker quoted Joseph Conrad's Marlow on Lord Jim to proclaim that Nixon was "one of us." This insight has been generally ridiculed and misunderstood, and was at one point somewhat repudiated by Wicker himself. But it was profoundly right. The record proves that Nixon was one of us. But how, exactly, was he one of us? If we can answer that question, we will learn a good deal about Richard Nixon but even more, perhaps, about ourselves--perhaps more, indeed, than we really want to know. For we may discover a sense in which, for America, every age is the Age of Nixon.

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