Apr 1, 1979
Dracula Leaves His Castle
“Had Richard Nixon been able to attract the political help of those who believed in his foreign policies, it is unlikely he would have been driven from office.”
Like a spider coming out from a crack in the rocks, Richard Milhous Nixon has emerged from his San Clemente exile to discover if he still has an important place in the world. Considering that no American in modern times has had such universal public obloquy dumped on him, it is astonishing that this man who has come to be regarded as Benedict Arnold II by millions of his fellow citizens has the brass to show his face. But if the Swooped-Nosed One is anything, he’s tough.
That he is alive is proof enough of that. Only someone who was in America at the time of his downfall can appreciate the volume, the fervor and ubiquitousness of the invective aimed at the man. At the height of the Cold War, Joseph Stalin got more sympathetic treatment in the American press. Such a rage was probably necessary in order to carry out the regicide, but watching it was, nevertheless, like looking at a political equivalent of stoning a man to death, an American version of those weird Chinese wall poster campaigns. Alone, without a single supporter fighting for him in public—excepting only an obscure retired rabbi from Fall River, Massachusetts, who had formed an ineffectual committee on his behalf—lichard Nixon almost went under and died of phlebitis. Only the toughness, which had brought him back from earlier and lesser political extinctions, pulled him through.
How tough the man America loves to hate actually can be illustrated by a story told by H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, who was until recently serving a term in prison for his part in laffaire Watergate. Shortly before Nixon’s old grand vizier was to report for prison duty, the world’s most famous used car salesman called up his former aide from San Clemente and inquired how Haldeman was planning to vote in a forthcoming California election. “Boss,” the quondam German shepherd quotes himself as saying, “in case you’ve forgotten, I am a convicted felon and therefore can’t legally cast a vote.” To this there was an extended pause which Haldeman heard while the master of San Clemente considered what to say, after which Haldeman heard the voice at the other end of the wire reply, “Well, in that case, I’ll just have to vote twice.”
In the last few months Mr. Nixon has been sallying forth with increasing frequency. He might have been seen flitting about even more, had places like Australia not given him to understand that, while they wouldn’t exactly refuse him entrance, they’d just as soon he’d go and create a problem for some other foreign government. The reason this iguana-man has been stirring and going about scaring children is probably owing to a severe case of cabin fever or perhaps a desire to do a little self-rehabilitation—if only by way of trying to play the role of a somewhat tarnished elder statesman. Of course, this activity has given rise to the suspicion that Vampire Numero Uno is about to take wing again and try to stage a political comeback.
Nothing would be more impossible for Richard Nixon, as those with a less fervidly moral view of why he fell from power can appreciate. There is no political base for him, not so much because of the ill-defined and not-so-always easy to see “Watergate cover-up,” but because of the hatred borne for him by the American conservative right, the very groups who would not defend him as he started to go down in late 1973 and 1974. The author of detente, the architect of SALT and the man who recognized Red China, as it is invariably called in those circles, can’t return from San Clemente like Napoleon from Elba to draw his scattered legions to him for yet another campaign. Mr. Nixon has no legions, since in the eyes of his sometime supporters he is also the person who masked the surrender in Vietnam (“the first war we ever lost”) with the mendacious slogan of Peace with Honor.
Although Richard Nixon should be recognized as the man who made the near-heroic attempt to change American foreign policy as it had become fossilized in the late Forties, he gets no credit from the liberals and more benign centrists who had been advocating just such a shift indirection long before he came to the Presidency. There is something so persistently unlikable about the man that in his unique case it is not true that my enemies’ enemies are my friends. His enemies’ enemies remained his enemies, so that the longer his presidency lasted the fewer supporters he had.
Had Richard Nixon been able to attract the political help of those who believed in his foreign policies, it is unlikely he would have been driven from office. The Watergate episode itself would then have been defined as the second-rate burglary attempt the White House once called it, as the smudgy kind of river ward politics Nixon sometimes indulged in, as a bad mark but not an impeachable offence.
Since Nixon’s enemies couldn’t stomach him, even when he was doing what they wished and as they wished, they chose instead to give the credit to Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, who had been a feral war hawk and cold warrior until Nixon summoned him to be the executor, not the maker of foreign policy, was lionized as the innovator he was not. Yet as soon as the Trickster was defenestrated, Kissinger began to revert to type and abandon detente, a word he and Jerry Ford banished in the 1976 campaign. He is now the familiar pre-Nixon Herr Kriegs Doktor championing a policy of utmost bellicosity whilst Jimmy Carter is having his trouble even holding to his scaled-down and diminished version of Nixon’s foreign policy directions.
Throughout his White House years Richard Nixon repeatedly insisted he was working for a stabilized, tension-free system of world peace. It was a system which depended on playing China off against Russia and on giving the bureaucratic hierarchs of the Kommissariat a debatably large measure of approval and approbation. Thus what he was doing was open to attack as dangerous balance-of-power politics as well as being founded on an almost anti-democratic social vision, but even this was well past what many in the United States were prepared to do. So even a partial rehabilitation will elude him because a fairer picture of him and his administration can’t be drawn without giving credit for his work in international affairs.
Just as he will have to wait, perhaps into the next life, for his portion of justice in diplomacy, no fair assessment of Nixon as a domestic politician is in immediate prospect. His natural base, the conservatives, remember him as the price control president, as a New Dealer in Republican raiment. The old time New Dealers, the Democrats, the trade union liberals and the like will go to their graves refusing to admit that whether it was low interest rates and easy money or price controls, their ancient enemy was he who served them best. For them he will always be the Milhous around America’s neck.
Although in the economic sphere the Nixon administration failed in ways that the Carter Administration sometimes appears to be emulating, Nixon’s efforts at reorganizing the federal government and taming its bureaucracy by putting it under the presidential power is worthy of far more sympathetic treatment that it has received up till now. What is generally dismissed as RMN’s unconstitutional attempt to take power that didn’t belong to the office may someday be viewed by historians as a courageous effort by a president to hold and expand the powers of the office at least to the point that its occupant could hope to administer the executive branch of government. In this he failed, but so alarmed the bureaucracy that they leaked the smarmy details of his tax-chiseling and expense account cheating—the ignoble minor peculations which did far more than the Watergate coverup to undermine his popularity.
Unlovable, unpleasant, uncharming, ungracious, and unconquerable, it will be a long time yet before a balanced portrait of this man will be drawn. In the meantime, he is fated to play a political Count Dracula, taking flight from time to time on his dark, bat-winged cape to visit England and elsewhere, ever thirsting for the thick, red liquor of approval. At home, naturally, they’re waiting to drive a stake through his heart before he runs for office again.
Nicholas von Hoffman, nationally syndicated columnist and commentator, is a contributing editor of Inquiry. The present article is reprinted by permission from The Spectator.