Nixon : A Bad President?
Nixon revisionism was probably inevitable, and no doubt will continue stronger than ever in the wake of its subject's death on April 22. The old caricatures--Nixon as villainous schemer, mad bomber, domestic underachiever-- were bound to collapse, because they were built more on Nixon's personality than on his record. A more recent crowd, however, at a further remove from his presidency, is reconsidering that record. Look beyond Watergate, they say, and you find a blemished but strong presidency, tough and flexible abroad, innovative and liberal at home. If not for the scandal that finally brought him down, Richard Nixon would have gone down as not only a fine president but maybe even a great one. Twenty years on, with the shadow of Watergate receding and the Nixon revisionists bringing a fresh spirit of objectivity to the subject, it's possible to take a clearer look at the Nixon record. But in doing so, one is taken aback. Even setting Watergate entirely to one side, as though it had never happened, Nixon must be put down as easily the worst president of the postwar era, and probably of this century. The revisionists are right about one thing. Watergate, however deplorable, was pathology rather than policy. To help clarify the substantive record of those years, let's agree, then, to consider Nixon without considering Watergate. Let's also grant that Nixon's opening to China was a major accomplishment. It gave the Soviets a headache and recognized the reality of China not a moment too soon. So give him credit for China--and then set that, too, to one side, where it can (partially) offset the blot of Watergate. That done, the vast gray expanses that constitute the bulk of Nixon's record lie before us. And it's not a pretty sight. The most important foreign policy event of Nixon's presidency was not China but the Vietnam War. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaigned against escalating the war; in 1965 he escalated it, with self-evidently grim results. And then he was destroyed. Having witnessed this, Nixon, amazingly, repeated the mistake-- and of course the same mistake is a lot worse the second time you make it. " We will end this one and win the peace," Nixon told the voters in 1968. After the 1952 elections Eisenhower promptly got out of Korea, as he had promised. After the 1968 elections Nixon did not get out of Vietnam. Rather, he prosecuted the war seemingly endlessly while simultaneously negotiating to leave it. It was not war until victory, but war until escape. That a politician as supposedly astute as Nixon would carry on a losing war in open defiance of a public mandate to end it beggars belief. Nixon's secret bombings, his wartime lies, his betrayal of the voters all taught millions of Americans that government could not be trusted. Johnson had already betrayed the voters once, but they got rid of him. By the time Nixon had finished going Johnson one better, millions of Americans believed, with reason, that the government itself was a fountain of lies. On the day Nixon died Hillary Rodham Clinton wrestled with that legacy as she faced down the press on Whitewater. Nixon's dallying in Vietnam left more than 15,000 additional Americans dead, to say nothing of more than half a million Vietnamese. If those lives had bought a better settlement in 1973 than could have been achieved in 1969, then perhaps they could be justified. But they bought nothing; the Americans left and in due course South Vietnam fell to the Communists, and that was that. To which add the rending of consensus as the war tore American culture into raging camps, one angrily radical and the other angrily reactionary; and the sapping of American confidence and morale as the fighting dragged on fruitlessly (the "Vietnam syndrome," the sense of weakness, "malaise"); and the financial cost, partly expressed as inflation; and the sheer scalding horror of the battle itself. To all of which, a gruesome codicil: by taking the war into...
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