Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore both claimed that “Richard Nixon was our last liberal president.” The Liberal Ironist thinks President Obama hopes to take this distinction from him, but with the Republicans poised to take control of the House of Representatives following next month’s elections, his long-term ideological contribution will be in question. There is no question, however, that for his signature achievements President Nixon qualifies as a Liberal.
Nixon maintained a high public approval rating, until his obvious troubles. His reputation was destroyed upon his resignation, and his pardon by President Ford certainly didn’t redeem it. In the US News and World Report‘s ranking of the “The 10 Worst Presidents,” Nixon ties for #9 with Herbert Hoover. (Granted, the methodology for the ranks is unclear and the list doesn’t follow proper list convention in not going to #10 if two others tie at 9.) But even if you turn to the C-Span 2009 Historians Presidential Leadership Survey, you find that the assembled academic and lay historians rank Nixon as 27th among 42 Presidents, in ascending order behind Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter and William Howard Taft. (Of course, it could just say something about the rigor of such averages even of informed opinion if averaged results rank 18 past Presidents below Taft.) Lyndon Johnson is ranked 11 in the same survey; among his many accomplishments he also never found a voice for dealing with a phase of violent radicalism in our politics, enabled an enormous politicide of Communists during a military coup in Indonesia, and committed our armed forces to Vietnam. For his role in calming our country’s fragmenting political conversation while addressing numerous social injustices, for bringing on better relations with Communist governments while maintaining America’s diplomatic influence, and withdrawing our forces from Vietnam, Nixon rarely receives similar acknowledgment.
Liberals in particular should see much to like in Nixon’s accomplishments. He recognized the People’s Republic of China, created the Environmental Protection Agency, created OSHA to oversee workplace safety and comfort, created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, created Title IX for women’s sports, added the cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security, and expanded food stamps and welfare assistance. He also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, though that failed out among the States.
President Nixon is also the first national leader I am aware of to sign a settlement with indigenous peoples that was made on equal terms. In 1971 he signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into law; this Act constitutes the largest settlement of America’s indigenous peoples’ claims to their ancestral lands to that date, and served as a model and inspiration for land claim settlements by Eskimo and Inuit in Canada and Greenland.
He also cut Defense spending by about 1/3 and withdrew our troops from Vietnam, though of course he kept us in that theater overlong and immorally and illegally escalated that war both in the uplands and in Cambodia out of a naive intention to put our corrupt South Vietnamese ally on better military footing for our departure. (Though this plan of course ultimately failed, Nixon even successfully convinced the Russians and the Chinese to pressure North Vietnam to settle with the South.) Nixon actually used the prospect of a missile defense system–unlike President Reagan who wanted to build it promptly–as a pretext to coax the Russians into the 1st round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, both of which were a complete success and which in retrospect mark a permanent improvement in relations with the Soviet Union.
During an economic downturn, Nixon unapologetically engaged in deficit spending to get people working again and publicly declared, “Now I am a Keynesian.” When Nixon took the US Dollar off the gold standard, he said “The American dollar must never again be a hostage in the hands of international speculators…” The currency devalued, and the relative value of our manufactured goods on the export market improved.
Nixon’s political project was to unite the Roosevelt-Truman manufacturing labor coalition with the social conservatism of the South to build a populist coalition. This coalition eventually unraveled because of the expansion of international trade and emergence of a high-tech and service economy which led Ronald Reagan and his Republican standard-bearers to combine the Southern social conservatism with strictly market-oriented and corporation-friendly policies. But in the meantime, Nixon’s domestic policies managed to expand and refine President Johnson’s Great Society, his foreign policies took us past the dangerous Cold War paranoia of the 1960s, and the tone of his Presidency arguably represents the most-serious attempt to bridge our post-1960s political divisions and inspire concern for the good of the whole country until our current President, whom not incidentally also aims to be the next Liberal President. Excluding the dark moments of the pointless escalation of violence in Vietnam and Cambodia and the Watergate scandal which brought down his Presidency, Richard Nixon’s actions are those of a great statesman and, yes, maybe even a good man. But those dark moments do rank among our darkest; while Nixon had great accomplishments as President, he also committed idiomatic crimes.
For a consistently-interesting and sometimes surprising biography, I recommend President Nixon: Alone in the White House by Richard Reeves. For those who’d rather watch a movie, I recommend Oliver Stone’s Nixon.