The four words above would be familiar to many who were around in the summer and fall of 1972. They were emblazoned on countless buttons distributed by Republican campaign offices around the country to promote the thirty-seventh President’s re-election: in red letters on some, with “President Nixon” in blue letters above, or in white letters, above a photo of the President and Vice-President Spiro Agnew. They also figured in the “Nixon Now” jingle often heard on radio and TV in those months.
“More than ever, more than ever, more than ever we need Nixon now…” But there were a lot of young rebels in those days who winced and grimaced when they heard that song, and counted themselves fortunate that RN had been so unwise as to sign the Constitutional amendment that allowed to vote three years early, so they could cast a ballot for his opponent. One of them might have been a Midwesterner named Kurt Andersen, who turned 18 that summer. Two Augusts later, he was between semesters at that mecca of Nixon-haters, Harvard University – watching the President deliver his resignation speech and no doubt hoping that none of his classmates would ever learn that his mother had actually voted for Nixon in five successive elections.
But like a lot of those who most vociferously denounced RN during his Presidency, Andersen has been having second thoughts. The former editor of Spy magazine and current Public Radio International host wrote a column which appeared yesterday in that venerable citadel of anti-Nixon fuminations, the op-ed page of the New York Times.
Ever since it became clear to liberal pundits, more or less in a matter of weeks, that President Obama was not the second coming of Abraham Lincoln or even FDR, I have read a number of columns and blogposts asking why the President can’t be more like Lyndon B. Johnson….or Richard Nixon. Andersen’s column is in the latter category, and this argument has been seen more and more often online and in print since the start of this year.
When the President’s party had control of both houses of Congress but he was able to accomplish little with this power except to get his health-care bill passed by a whisker, some were asking why he could not use the good old carrot-and-stick, flattering-and-berating, arm-around-the shoulder “Johnson treatment” to get things accomplished in Congress.
But it has long since been obvious that Barack Obama’s political approach is not as personality-driven as LBJ’s, and that his four years in the Senate did not provide him with the encyclopedic knowledge of the quirks, foibles, and biases of individual legislators that Johnson either had gained through his long experience in the House and Senate, or that he could rapidly acquire from his hard-working Capitol Hill liasons.
And once the GOP regained control of the House, with many of the new legislators far less hospitable toward the President’s agenda, some of Obama’s supporters began to wonder if a new approach was possible. During his Administration, Richard Nixon’s way of handling Congress was criticized by many in the media as divisive and combative. Now, remarkably, some Democrats have started to wish that it could be a model for the current President to follow, especially in the recent battle over the debt ceiling.
Andersen begins his piece by recounting a talk with an unnamed Hollywood figure, apparently a legendary “doer of deals,” who was stunned by what happened several weeks ago when, at a press briefing, the President brought up the possibility, promoted by many of his supporters, that if he could not come to an agreement with the GOP leadership about raising the ceiling, he could invoke the fourth section of the Fourteenth Amendment and unilaterally act to raise it, leaving the courts to sort matters out. President Obama had told the reporters that the idea had come up, but after consulting with his legal staff, he had concluded that it would be unconstitutional.
The Tinseltown player had been shocked at the President’s willingness to dispose of his ace that way rather than play it for what it might be worth, and so was Andersen, who continues:
In other words, it’s a pity Barack Obama isn’t more like Richard Nixon. I think of Nixon every year around now, as another anniversary of his resignation (Tuesday the 9th) rolls around. President Nixon famously tried convincing the Communists that he might literally go nuclear if they didn’t behave. “I call it the Madman Theory,” he explained to his chief of staff. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.”
Of course, a lot of us swooned over Obama partly because he seemed so prudent, straightforward and even-keeled. But now, with Republicans spectacularly applying the Madman Theory for the first time in domestic politics, Obama’s nonconfrontational reasonableness isn’t looking like such a virtue.
It’s frustrating. We’ve had presidents who were intelligent and progressive but also cynical and ruthless when necessary. Effective, tough-minded, visionary liberals such as F.D.R., Clinton … and Nixon.
Of course, Richard Nixon was also a highly skilled poker player. He knew how to keep his opponents guessing about what he might do. In such a dispute as the one that paralyzed Washington for the last few weeks, he would have had an excellent sense of not only how to invoke Section 4 of the 14th, but to use the prospect of invoking it to break a stalemate.
This brings to mind my previous post about Nixon’s speech announcing the closing of the “gold window.” As I remarked, in the long run, it might be that his actions in August 1971 were not for the best. But at the time they represented action at a time when inaction could have produced disaster. And, just as was the case with FDR’s actions in the Hundred Days of 1933, they were welcomed by the financial community because they showed leadership.
Andersen continues with a list, by now increasingly familiar, of all the remarkably liberal aspects of the Nixon Presidency – his plan for single-payer health-care, the establishment of the EPA, the adjustment for inflation of Social Security, etc. (The list overlaps considerably with one that appeared a few weeks back at the Scholars And Rogues site) But what makes his column remarkable is his recognition that some of the qualities for which Richard Nixon was so demonized by journalists in his day are now recognized as among those which made him a strong and decisive President. “Nixon revisionism” has been ridiculed in a lot of places for over a quarter-century, but now it seems to be an increasing trend in even the least likely places….like the New York Times.