Richard Nixon’s Legacy
January 11, 2013
Attached below you will find a column on Richard Nixon’s legacy by Andrew Rosenthal of the NY Times. There are some reasons I find this column interesting, that is, interesting for how we analyze and think about politics.
Rosenthal’s argument is that Nixon was a complex character, a shrewd political analyst and manipulator as well as a president who “promoted important social-welfare policies” like the Clean Air Act, affirmative action, the EPA and OSHA. Nonetheless, Rosenthal concludes that he was “a crook who was forced to relinquish his presidency. That is his legacy.”
Here is what I see as the problem with Rosenthal’s analysis, viz., that it just isn’t political enough. Note that Rosenthal does not present those “important social-welfare policies” as political. That is, he does not describe them in political terms such as “democratic” or “oligarchic” or “elitist.” This is not surprising insofar as a politics of policy making is actually an attempt to escape, suppress, or avoid politics. Policymaking is something that should be done by experts, who of course will gather facts and propose solutions, solutions that “work” to “solve the problem.” These experts are not thought of as being political or participating in politics, that being left to congressmen or presidents. So there is or should be nothing crass about “making policy” or endorsing a politics of policy making and by endorsing such “important social-welfare policies” Nixon was not being crass or manipulative.
On the other hand, Nixon was “a crook.” Again, although this is not necessarily an inaccurate description of Nixon, it is not a political description. “Crooks” are not political and their activities are not political. What they are is ambiguous but it is clear that they are not political or involved in politics.
The problem here is that neither of Rosenthal’s descriptions of Nixon, that of social-welfare endorser or that of crook, can explain the intense feelings that Rosenthal admits surround Richard Nixon even to this day. To explain such intense feelings we must recur to Nixon’s politics, that is, to such political actions as his making war or further war in Vietnam, his attempts to subvert the democratic process in the 1972 presidential election that led to Watergate, and his opening to China, to take three examples. Policy makers or crooks do not, and I would argue cannot, create the kind of intensity that Nixon created and creates. Only politics can create such intensity. [See “Note” below.]
Viewed politically, Nixon’s actions in Vietnam may be and were seen by many as war crimes and him as a war criminal. Whether he was a war criminal is a political question, whereas whether he was a crook is a legal question. Similarly, Nixon’s actions during and after the 1972 presidential election were seen by many, even by most, as attempts to undermine the democratic process of electing a president. Again, this is a political crime, not an ordinary crime. And, lastly here, Nixon’s opening to China was seen by many as an act of statesmanship and, of course, such acts are necessarily political.
And this helps explain why Richard Nixon arouses such intense feelings even today: Who was Richard Nixon? What was he, a war criminal or a statesman? It is not difficult to see that such questions will excite people, should excite people, perhaps even for a very, very long time. But it is also possible to see that this debate is far more important than debating whether Nixon’s “crook-ed-ness” was redeemed by his endorsement of certain “important social-welfare programs.”
[Note: Why this is so I am uncertain. Perhaps it is part of what Aristotle meant when he described we humans as “political animals;” that is, for we humans politics is a serious business indeed, perhaps even our most serious business. And it is because we humans raise and take seriously the questions, what is good or what is best? These are the questions that lie at the heart of politics and are never far from the center of political debate, controversy, and conflict. And they are also the kind of questions that quite naturally lead to controversy and conflict. Just ask Socrates about that.]