President Nixon’s primacy in foreign affairs has long been acknowledged even by his harshest critics. But his domestic record has tended both to be overlooked as a result of the conventional wisdom — particularly in the academy and the media — that he was a typically troglodytic Republican conservative, and overshadowed by the myriad issues collectively known as Watergate. But, in fact, in terms of domestic policies and initiatives, the Nixon White House years — and particularly the first term from 1969 to 1973 — are among the most innovative, accomplished, and productive periods of modern Presidential history.
While Nixon was facilely classified as a conservative, his own self-characterization may perhaps turn out to have been more acute and accurate: he called himself a “pragmatic idealist.” His idealism was based on his instinctive belief in the goodness and greatness of the American nation and people; he was an unabashed American exceptionalist. His pragmatism was based on a canny sense of politics and personalities and, not least, the awareness that he was the first President since Zachary Taylor to enter office with both houses of Congress controlled by the opposition party.
Nixon’s approach was to combine his recognition of, and respect for, the limits of government’s role in the lives of its citizens with his conviction that some of the social and cultural achievements of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society were worth preserving and even expanding.
Nixon’s approach was to combine his recognition of, and respect for, the limits of government’s role in the lives of its citizens with his conviction that some of the achievements of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society were worth preserving or perfecting. During the series of monthly Nixon Legacy Forums that are being jointly sponsored by the Nixon Foundation and the Nixon Presidential Library, special attention will be paid to several domestic areas, including reforming the American system of health care, shaping the nation’s first environmental policy, beginning the quest for energy independence, reforming the welfare system, and the desegregation of America’s schools..
In his second State of the Union Message, delivered on 22 January 1971, the President challenged Congress to join him in achieving six great goals. (And, more immediately, he pressed them to pass the xx pieces of major legislation that had been languishing on Capitol Hill.)
The first goal was to reform the welfare system, which he said had become “a monstrous, consuming outrage — an outrage against the community, against the taxpayer, and particularly against the children it is supposed to help.” His proposed solution was little short of stunning (and no less so for coming from Richard Nixon): the government would provide a guaranteed minimum income for every American family with children. This was the revolutionary Family Assistance Program of 1970 crafted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The second goal was to achieve prosperity in peacetime — a condition Americans hadn’t enjoyed for more than a decade.
The third goal — and it was the first time such a goal had been presented by a President to Congress — was to restore and enhance America’s natural environment. In his 1970 State of the Union message, he said: “Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now — they can be.”
The fourth goal was to improve America’s health care by making it available more fairly to more people, and by making sure that no family would be prevented from obtaining basic medical care because of their inability to pay for it. As part of his proposals in this area, he asked for an extra $100 million to launch an intensive campaign to find a cure for cancer.
The fifth goal was to strengthen and renew State and local governments by sharing federal revenues with them. In words that still have a contemporary ring, he said:
I reject the patronizing idea that government in Washington, D.C., is inevitably more wise, more honest, and more efficient than government at the local or State level. The honesty and efficiency of government depends on people. Government at all levels has good people and bad people. And the way to get more good people into government is to give them more opportunity to do good things.
The idea that a bureaucratic elite in Washington knows best what is best for people everywhere and that you cannot trust local governments is really a contention that you cannot trust people to govern themselves. This notion is completely foreign to the American experience. Local government is the government closest to the people, it is most responsive to the individual person. It is people’s government in a far more intimate way than the Government in Washington can ever be.
People came to America because they wanted to determine their own future rather than to live in a country where others determined their future for them.
And, not lacking for audacity, the President’s sixth goal was a complete reform of the Federal Government in order to achieve the maximum efficiency and effectiveness. This work had begun, when he was President-Elect, with the appointment of the Ash Council, and it continued, in July 1970, with the creation of the Domestic Council.
The President concluded by describing his proposals as nothing less than a New American Revolution:
But above all, what this Congress can be remembered for is opening the way to a new American revolution — a peaceful revolution in which power was turned back to the people — in which government at all levels was refreshed and renewed and made truly responsive. This can be a revolution as profound, as far-reaching, as exciting as that first revolution almost 200 years ago — and it can mean that just 5 years from now America will enter its third century as a young nation new in spirit, with all the vigor and the freshness with which it began its first century.
The story of whether, and how, these goals were achieved will unfold at the Nixon Legacy Forums and here on the Nixon Foundation’s website.