Richard Nixon and the Tragedy of American Politics
I have just finished reading an excellent book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner, one of my favored authors. Weiner has also written books on the FBI, entitled Enemies, and on the CIA, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA. All of these are excellent books.
Weiner’s latest on Nixon is quite gripping and enlightening with regard to Richard Nixon and his presidency. Drawing on the Nixon tapes and oral histories given by those who were involved in the affairs of the times, Weiner reveals just how “dark” Nixon could get and, interestingly, just how insecure this man actually was. As his presidency was going down the tubes, as is said, Nixon actually fell apart, being replaced by the likes of Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger as those who were in control of the government. Moreover, it becomes clear that Nixon as not nearly as intelligent as he thought he was and as some have made him out to be. What became known as the Watergate scandal and especially the subsequent cover-up that Nixon attempted was actually little more than one mistake after another, mistakes usually made by Nixon himself. After all, if Nixon had at the outset taken charge, admitted that the burglary had been undertaken by his “CREEPs,” and then fired everyone involved – and maybe some who weren’t involved - while claiming that he would never approve or even condone such behavior, he could have survived, even maybe have prospered.
So, a question arises: Why did Nixon not take such action? Surely, it would have crossed his mind to do so and certainly the benefits of such action would have also occurred to him. Why did he undertake to cover-up something that he could have seized upon, while easily separating himself from its perpetrators, and preserved his presidency? It is a question to which I have no answer but it leads to an interesting aspect to Weiner’s book, viz., its melodramatic character.
Weiner sees Nixon as a deeply flawed human being, so deeply flawed that his life, at least his political life, was tragic. This is reminiscent of other accounts of other American politicians, e.g., Oliver Stone’s account of John F. Kennedy in his book, The Untold History of the United States, or of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, recently published. It is also reminiscent of her book on Lyndon Baines Johnson. In brief, this is a characteristic found generally in accounts of American politicians, especially those of recent vintage.
But there is room to wonder whether such accounts are as enlightening as they seem to be. For example, here is how Weiner concludes his book in the epilogue. It is worth quoting at length.
“Richard Nixon fought wars he could not win, feared his enemies at home would defeat him, and felt unconstrained by law when he sought to destroy them first. That belief led him to break his oath of office and violate the Constitution. He permanently damaged people’s respect for the presidency, a danger in a democracy.
“And now his legacy is all around us.
“Some presidents who succeeded Nixon never seemed to learn. Ronald Reagan ran covert wars overseas with clandestine funds. His top national security aides were indicted, then pardoned, by George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury. George W. Bush’s abuses of power dwarfed Nixon’s – secret prisons, sanctioned torture, limitless eavesdropping, all supported by presidential fiat and secret statutes, aided and abetted by Vice President Dick Cheney. Barack Obama’s administration tormented more reporters and their sources under threat of subpoena or prison than Nixon’s ever did. In America, now more than ever, campaign cash from corporate magnates controls elections.” [p. 315]
Now, given this state of affairs, isn’t it necessary to ask whether Richard Nixon wasn’t just a reflection of the American political order, how it functions, and how it has to function to “work?” That is, there was nothing all that unique about Richard Nixon and the way he thought about, talked about, and did politics, little that distinguished him from others who occupied the presidency, the pinnacle of the American political order. He rose to the pinnacle of that political order, occupied it with some distinction, all the while practicing the kind of politics required by established regime.
The problem with a melodramatic account of Richard Nixon, as also with such accounts of other American politicians, is that they obscure the character of the established political order. As a result, the impression is created that Richard Nixon, for example, was an aberration, that his actions should be traced to him rather than to the political order which led him to behave as he did. So, as Weiner’s title indicates, it was “The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.” But it could be this is too sanguine; it could that it wasn’t simply Nixon’s tragedy. It could be that it was and is “The Tragedy of the American Political Order.”