Many careful students of the career of President Nixon have noted his capacity to see beyond the issues of the day, and construct policies meant to ensure the welfare of future generations, not only in America but across the world. Authors who have examined this aspect of his work at length include Conrad Black, Jonathan Aitken and the late Tom Wicker.
However, none of them are responsible for writing the phrase that is the title of this post to describe the thirty-seventh President. Instead, it appeared yesterday in Salon.com. Yes, you read that right – Salon, one of the most dependably liberal-leaning websites in America since its founding in 1995. One has to wonder when similar words will appear in the pages of The Nation or perhaps even one day, The New Yorker.
Well….while Elizabeth Drew, who for so long excoriated RN in the latter magazine, is reaching for her smelling salts, let us examine the Salon article by Edward McClelland. Mr. McClelland is 46, a native of Lansing, Michigan, who has long resided in Chicago. He is the author of four books on diverse subjects. The Salon article is derived from his latest book, Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times And Hopes Of America’s Industrial Heartland.
The article is entitled, “RIP, the middle class 1946-2013,” and presents McClelland’s thesis – hardly an unfamiliar one – that the backbone of American prosperity from the end of the Second World War until the late 1970s was a unionized, well-paid blue-collar sector. What distinguishes his argument is the acknowledgement that the prosperity of blue-collar America from the post-New Deal era up to the Great Society and beyond was predicated upon the capacity of the American economy to expand, which was based in part on ready availability of inexpensive oil, and also on the fact that the United States was the one great power to emerge economically unscathed from WWII – the one nation in the best position to take advantage of the appetite for goods generated by the revival of the economies of the European nations and Japan. When this capacity came to an end as a result of the Arab oil embargo of 1973, as well as the inflationary spiral that kicked in around the same time, it became an inevitability that American manufacturing would suffer.
McClelland’s point is that President Nixon, in the early 1970s, foresaw what was to come, and did his best to keep working Americans from bearing the brunt of economic hardship:
The last president who had a plan for protecting American workers from the vicissitudes of the global economy was Richard Nixon, who was in office when foreign steel and foreign cars began seriously competing with domestic products. The most farsighted politician of his generation, Nixon realized that America’s economic hegemony was coming to an end, and was determined to cushion the decline by a) preventing foreign manufacturers from overrunning our markets and b) teaching Americans to live within their new limits. When the United States began running a trade deficit, Nixon tried to reverse the trend with a 10 percent tariff on imported products. After the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo suddenly increased the price of gasoline from 36 cents to 53 cents a gallon (and just as suddenly increased the demand for fuel-efficient German and Japanese cars), Nixon lowered the speed limit to 55 miles an hour and introduced the Corporate Average Fuel Economy law, which gave automakers until 1985 to double their fleetwide fuel efficiency to 27.5 miles per gallon.
Had Nixon survived Watergate, he might have set the nation on a course that emphasized government regulation of the economy, and trade protection as a response to globalism. We might also have preserved more of the manufacturing base necessary for a strong middle class. But his successors dismantled that vision, beginning with Jimmy Carter, an economically conservative Southern planter. Nixon’s answer to inflation had been wage and price controls, an intrusion into the free market that would be unimaginable today. Carter deregulated the airline, rail and trucking industries, hoping that competition would result in lower prices. It didn’t, but it gave the newly liberated companies more leverage against their unions. When inflation nonetheless reached 14 percent, Carter’s hand-picked Federal Reserve Board chairman, Paul Volcker, responded by tightening the money supply, raising interest rates so high that Americans could not afford loans for cars or houses.
It is of no small interest that McClelland singles out President Carter, nowadays regarded with warmth by many liberals, as the one whose policies set in motion the process that undid what remained of RN’s efforts to protect the American blue-collar and middle-class sectors. An examination of the policies that the Nixon White House was preparing in the earlier part of 1973 shows that the Administration was committed to keeping inflation under control to protect the purchasing capacity and security of the middle class, in tandem with efforts to maintain the strength of America as a global importer of goods and agricultural products. The oil crisis that arose in October 1973, and the subsequent skyrocketing of fuel prices, created a mood of public dissatisfaction that, perhaps even more than Watergate, doomed the Nixon presidency.
As the United States enters an uncertain month economically speaking, with various bearish commentators raising red flags, it is unsurprising that Americans, more and more, look back to the early 1970s, and President Nixon’s readiness to undertake unprecedented and innovative steps to further the prosperity of his nation and its citizens, with increased appreciation.