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Taking the Nixonpill
Richard Nixon didn't so much disgrace the office of the president as much as he did define it for the modern era, even if no one wants to admit it, and this is a very bad thing for everybody
A common way to analyze the Nixon presidency is (correctly, at least, in part) through the lens of corruption, and singularly so. However, much like the political discourse of today, it seems to come down to an aesthetic debate, rather than one of material or tangible outcomes of the actions themselves—it’s the same evil, but in a less friendly, marketable package, a violation of a civility doctrine. I say this because, while Nixon is universally reviled (and again, this is correct), actions to the contrary say otherwise about his true impact on the presidency, and the legislators who would follow such an executive, and even about the office as it existed before he assumed it. The chain of events from a 1971 discussion between Nixon and Donald Rumsfeld, which included the advice that no one would ever figure out the Middle East, on the topic of the latter developing as a diploment (albeit one in the mold of Nixon), to the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by Rumsfeld and others in the Nixon orbit like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, etc. cannot be underestimated for, both, it’s emblematic nature of how the so-called Nixon Doctrine (which I will discuss later on) in foreign intervention (by way of proxy wars) was always intended to be the long-game towards full-on American imperialist occupation of oil producing nations, and Iraq had long been the target, from the first moment the Eisenhower administration debating intervening during the earliest inklings of the revolt against the British occupational government.
I am not an apologist for Richard Nixon, nor am I of the opinion that, like contemporary figures in the orbit of an amoral president like Dick Cheney or Colin Powell, associates of Nixon’s like Henry Kissinger do not belong on trial for war crimes. I am, however, of the opinion that Nixon’s legacy is overdue for a critical reevaluation; not because his record is over or under rated, but that it’s largely overshadowed by how it ended, and not the sheer lunacy of this man’s career arc. He wasn’t an LBJ-level narcissist, he was definitely a better diplomat than most who would be floated as emblematic of a “sane” Republican Party by liberals, but ultimately, he’s a metaphor for what pursuit of power in this country brings out in people. It doesn’t cause anything that wouldn’t have manifested otherwise, but the arc of his career in government demonstrates you can still try to do everything right by the sleazy standards of beltway insiders and still ultimately lose it all because one of your predecessors (Kennedy, for whom, admittedly, I have become something of an apologist for, at least for the last 6 months of his life), unfortunately, played the game too well and doomed Nixon to live under his boot one last time from beyond the grave.
His expansion of the quotidian legal limits of the presidency would go on to become his primary legacy; nominally repudiated, functionally embraced. This is not in dispute. However, what it seems Nixon failed to consider is that Kennedy had not only changed the public nature of the office of the president from the standpoint of the intelligence community, of whom he’d made the office on they were eager to get a fix on, but one of interest to the media— he might’ve gotten away with Watergate had this been any time before or since.
The Nixon presidency, itself, is remarkable because he ran on finding some face-saving way to end the war, with the caveat that it was openly acknowledged this wasn’t in the interest of peace, but in the interest of proving that America had made a mistake in not electing him the first time, and a diplomat was here to end thing the American Way; “peace with honor”. Nixon gets sworn in by Earl Warren; another moment where Nixon’s rehabilitation in the public eye seems imminent, sworn in by a former political foe. Nixon and Kissinger undertook, personally, a lot of interest in foreign policy goals that, unlike Kennedy, did align with the interest of the CIA in that he stayed in his lane of this sort of operation; they oversaw a coup in Chile, antagonized Castro, and authorized Operation Condor to finish the job started by assisting the Pinochet coup in Chile— the post-war century of the legacy of the United States would begin under Nixon, and every president since has him to thank for setting this precedent. To say this version of Nixon disgraced the office of the president would be incomplete; to say he defined the ethos of the presidency for a leader of the United States would be far more repulsive, but accurate.
The irony of this perception of Richard Nixon is that, as I mentioned, he fostered an entire generation of neoconservatives who went on to shape the new millennium in his own image, once out from under the boot of Eisenhower’s civility doctrine style conservative poltics which identify inhumanity while also enabled it (i.e. “the military-industrial complex”); it’s, in retrospect, similar to how we talk about Donald Trump— an edge case in an otherwise “sane” Republican Party, while totally embodying their values, however, unapologetically. This is always who they have been, and who the centrist Democrats have been reaching across the aisle to this whole time— that Nixon’s strategy and ethos as a leader has been embraced cannot be understated, it’s the crass rejection of the idea that a supervillain mentality must present as civil or else, only then, it becomes unpalatable to discuss—but not continue to enable- in polite company.
Richard Nixon is, correctly, as I said, not remembered as a generally great guy; but even among generally not great people, by the time of his presidency, he sought to be perceived as the most corrupt, but was never the most adroit at the machinations required to pull it off convincingly. I think it’s telling that Nixon, at least earlier in his career, at least seemed to believe the things he said and did; when he lost to Kennedy, he refused to contest elections that potentially were illegitimate (charges of Kennedy being mobbed up, etc.) in the interests of preserving the aesthetic integrity of American elections to an audience of Cold War Soviet-bloc allies to whom this would be a sign of weakness. I think he believed this because, as we’re now very familiar, Kennedy, like many Democrats since, ran to the right of Nixon on many key issues like armament (the “missle gap”), and escalating tensions as a result. This exposed Nixon’s (public) idealism for what it was; a lack of savvy that he thought would be compatible with those who bought Eisenhower’s concern trolling for the military-industrial complex’s proliferation, which almost certainly cost him the election, assuming all else about it was fair.
Another example of the differences between Kennedy and Nixon on escalating the Cold War can come down to how they approached, in the 1960 election (I suspect Kennedy had become more sympathetic, amidst tensions with the CIA seeking open hostilities with Soviet-aligned countries, to Nixon’s approach here), the issue of competition with the USSR:
Much of Khrushchev’s commentary in the above 1959 debate is in-line with the idea that they are, ideologically, at war, but fundamentally not necessarily on the brink of hostilities; Nixon, for his part, at this time, lauds Khrushchev, but considers their readiness to compete “extemporaneous”— a misstep, given how Khrushchev’s visit to the United States, and his relationship with Eisenhower, was considered a firm basis for détente; even Khrushchev’s son believes this was a key moment in slowing what were becoming increasing hostilities. Kennedy, for his part, read the pulse of the average citizen, outagitating Nixon on a point he’d have been very well-equipped to take on himself with the Russians, but instead walked the middle line, which must have seemed the politically savvy move. Ultimately, Eisenhower’s posturing as a military leader to distance himself from the notion of being the politician he was, is what alienated Nixon from him, and trying to be perceived as building on Eisenhower’s legacy, while running against a Democrat to his right on military issues, was considered one such deciding factor in swaying otherwise faithless voters. Nixon, known until that point as being an animal politically, despite a public persona of preternatural ability as a diplomat, lost a battle of optics to a mediocre Senator who was primed to accomplish very little. He would not make that mistake again.
In the intervening years, I suspect this wasn’t who he became, but who he revealed himself to be: Nixon’s post-1960 loss Six Crises was probably his last attempt at governing on his merit, or as he felt he should have been considered accomplished by the public, and at least through the next several election cycles, he was resigned to campaigning for others as an exercise in practiced erudition; Goldwater, becoming involved down-ballot, everything one might expect from a portrayal of an elder statesman. In this decision, in my estimation, is perhaps why he ignored the shift that occurred during (and was partially responsible for his assassination) the Kennedy administration with the CIA. More than most, the last year of the Kennedy administration made clear the intention of the CIA to be a shadow government, and that the president’s goals would take a backseat to their own, especially where Cold War politics were concerned. Seeking peace with Cuba, reaching out to Khrushchev (who had been first to back down during the Cuban Missle Crisis), etc. all flew in the face of the CIA, who felt bitterly towards Kennedy post-Bay of Pigs, but is speculated to have been a fatal mistake with his firing of Dulles and other top CIA officials.
The kind of president the CIA had been expecting was the Kennedy who beat Nixon, more Nixon than Nixon himself, not a Kennedy who began to sincerely parrot an alarmist version of insincere 1959 Nixon who failed trying to channel Eisenhower; without the pretext of being a diplomat. This was, after all, a sincere desire on Kennedy’s part to incapacitate the CIA following the Bay of Pigs. When Nixon returned to electoral politics, after Goldwater proved ineffective against Johnson, and he saw the Democratic Party splintering over its commitment to furthering the Vietnam War, but seemingly not addressing the growing anti-war movement either; Nixon was specifically not anti-war, but saw the opportunity, and not having to run against Robert Kennedy, and the much maligned, for this reason, Hubert Humphrey (nominated amidst the DNC’s commitment to Vietnam precipitating mass protests at the convention), began the first of many calculated moves that revealed his instincts for being a political operator once again.
Nixon, being setup for success by the Democrats, was ready for the big time: For the anti-war party to send in thousands of militarized police to brutalize demonstrators outsid eof the DNC in Chicago that year, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, and the party put up among the weakest candidates against the war imaginable for progressives to follow into battle against Nixon, while also proposing no coherent policy positions, no plan for 1969, let alone the next decade, it was a job they were not cut out for in defeating this new, invigorated Richard Nixon. They failed to stop him, and thus the course Eisenhower set for the Middle East (following his own occupational leadership in post-war Japan), and then Central America, was corrected, and Nixon would have his hand untied to follow through where Kennedy had been unsuccessful amidst the, as he saw it, optics of the space race, and the aesthetic battling of Cold War conflicts that, as Nixon would characterize it, “we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense”. This means that, for example, in Vietnam— a conflict which only benefitted Western capitalist interests, as far as the US was concerned; anti-communism largely being the “probable cause” for declaring anything they’d like a humanitarian crisis- conflict could break out, and the US would supply a proxy army.
One mitgating factor, however, was that his own character revelation came too late; this would have worked in 1960 when his demeanor as the diplomatic protege to Eisenhower proved too much a charismatic blackhole, but by ‘68, the office of the president and that of the role the CIA would go on to play for the rest of the post-war century was in a state of open warfare, and as a result, the absolute clumsiness that would lead to his presidency’s destruction was an exercise in the poorest kind of timing.
Kennedy’s actions towards, and probably assassination by, the CIA created an untenable circumstance for Nixon’s plans for foreign policy; the CIA wanted to control the day to day machinations of how the US undertook regime change, while Nixon (and his effectiveness as this cannot be underestimated) used his Doctrine’s principles to create a big picture approach to the growing US hegemony desired by Eisenhower, ambivalently so by Kennedy, but with the follow through assisted by a sociopathy of the sort only Henry Kissinger and himself could manage to solicit from others. A hallmark of the Nixon Doctrine, and one that should seem familiar in the modern era, was refusing to render aid directly (as I noted above), but to assisting in facilitating allies to do the nation’s bidding under the guise of teaching them to fish, so to speak— we see this in his Middle East policy, for example, or while in proxy conflict with the Soviets while publicly seeking peace and talking of disarmament.
We would see this play out under Nixon in the Pinochet coup of the Allende government in Chile— an example of Nixon taking the newly-defined role of the president in a CIA-concerned operation of this type; Nixon would point the finger, and let the CIA do its business-, as would the first of many entanglements in Iraq, which I cannot stress enough, is the most glaring indicator of what Nixon’s true legacy would be. A 1970 anti-Ba'athist coup attempt was denied, but CIA involvement was irrepressable, while the US had also relied heavily on Iraq’s forces to combat Iran in one such proxy conflict with a clear US interest (Iraq’s government supported by the US under al-Bakr, at the time, had not yet nationalized their oil industry), and one even during the Johnson presidency suspected to be one battleground for conflict with the Soviets (as would also be the case in Afghanistan in the next decade, and so on, until the early 90’s when Iraq would remain the sole boutique nation with a quack US-installed dictator that would be removed by US forces after the 2003 invasion, the first earliest pretext), so in the meantime, continued to shield the nascent Hussein administration from Iran and Israel as relations between Iraq and the USSR remained frosty, as long as it continued to be politically expedient. This was the beginning of, as we would learn over the next half century, the new way American foreign policy every president would follow after Nixon.
When I say that none of the harm done was “singularly” Nixon’s, I mean that he didn’t do anything that hadn’t had the groundwork laid for a long time— involvement in the Pacific during WWII was predicated on oil interests, the power-war occupation of former Axis holdings, but also repatriated former French colonies became a new battleground from the moment the Cold War began, the moment the Nazis were defeated in Europe- but especially by Eisenhower and Johnson, and Kennedy to a lesser extent (the CIA conflict was emblematic of this). What was, however, singularly Nixon’s was that he became the nexus for all of these concerns, and in doing so, gave a direction to the rhetoric, militarization, and the new goals set forth by Truman and Eisenhower for the American century, and we, as a nation, have yet to see a single president deviate from that path since. This is particularly true of the double-dealing we’ve come to expect with relations with Iraq— providing the gas and targets for Hussein to use, and then repudiating him for having done so as a pretext for invastion; Rumsfeld negotiating with Saddam over assistance amidst the Iraq-Iran war while the Iran-Contra affair had revealed the US supplying Iran with weapons, things of this nature- in characterizing Nixon’s impact to the office of the presidency, but also its influence outside of its duties. A side-effect of this, additionally, seems to be having solidified the CIA as an effective shadow government (something Johnson was all-too-willing to do, but Nixon, in beginning to do much of this in public, in his exercise of a lot of these objectives solidified it, which again, every administration since has followed suit), possibly the biggest piece of evidence supporting the notion that Nixon has only been repudiated by the US government nominally, as a man, but not as a leadership ethos, and it’s come to define not only the office, but what administrating like an American has come to mean to the rest of the world.
This is, again, not to suggest Nixon became anything other than who he always was, and that was how he’d spent his career, but his loss in 1960 was an exercise in being something he wasn’t; someone who wasn’t destined to be the Michaelangelo of war crime. If he had an ideology, it was to be the brick left on the accelerator for a slow-rolling tank before jumping off the side, as long as he could take credit, which, unfortunately for everyone, how his presidency ended ensured this legacy would only be discussed in an abstract manner that would make it, again, safe for public consumption without the stigma of being attached to one of the more objectively repellent, but familiar in almost all leaders since, US presidents. He let it get away from him— these were not new ambitions for him, and my 1968, he set out to prove that they’d wasted the 60’s on lesser war criminals. Nixon would, as he would tell David Frost, characterize this undisciplined nature of his ambitions in a surprisingly self-aware way: "I brought myself down. I gave them a sword and they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I'd been in their position, I'd have done the same thing."
Can you really blame a morally repugnant person for exploiting the rules of a morally repugnant set of objectives? Well, yeah, and in the modern era, we seem to have forgotten thing in prescribing that so much of what was actually objectionable about his time in office, and what his career represented, was good and necessary when we erase that part of his popular biography and apply it to that of others, and we see this today even in the sickening real-time rehabilitation of presidents like George W. Bush and, even more revoltingly, Vice President Dick Cheney. This was, again, the real lasting impact of Richard Nixon’s leadership, and while he didn’t get away with the part that would’ve satisfied him, he did with the larger impact to our global political landscape. As I said, this is not about rehabilitating Richard Nixon, this is about identifying his operational ethos in the time since the man left office, and that much is undeniable.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: