Archive for Sunday, June 19, 2005

Can history turn Richard Nixon into a hero?

June 19, 2005


The most jarring thing I read last week was a headline. My guess is that the headline, in a British newspaper, may be the most jarring thing you read this week: Nixon becomes Watergate hero.

Forget for a moment the argument, which is hard to summarize and even harder to support. The important thing is that the way we look at Watergate is changing even if only one fact about Watergate has changed. (That would be the identity of Deep Throat. He was former FBI official Mark Felt.)

The truth is that the past is changing all the time. That may seem to be an odd notion, because we all know that what is past is past; we can't do much about it, or change it. But much of the utility of the past is how we employ it - both to understand the present and to shape the way we approach the future. And the way we view that usable past is always being transformed.

Now I'm not willing to assert that Nixon was the hero of Watergate, but I am willing to say that the way the world views Nixon has changed, a lot, even in my own lifetime - a lifetime during which Watergate was, along with the election of President Kennedy, among the formative political moments.

The old consensus was that Nixon was a hopeless creep, a near crook (if not an actual one), a paranoid schemer whose openings to Moscow and Peking were motivated as much by opportunism as by vision.

The new consensus is more complex. Watergate is still part of it, and the Checkers speech has not lost its smarminess, and the way he smeared Helen Gahagan Douglas in the 1950 California Senate race remains unbecoming, or worse.

But Nixon is remembered, too, as a pioneer in environmentalism. He saw the world whole in a way that no president since has done, with the possible exception of George H.W. Bush, who is also enjoying a bit of a revival these days. Some liberals find his views on social welfare more congenial than those held by Bill Clinton.

One of the curious qualities of American political life is the way our anger dissipates over time. Years tend to render the unforgivable forgotten. We read in books now about how hated was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but it is hard to dispute the theory that FDR fixed in our collective memory - the idea of what a president should be like.

This year's high school seniors were born in the center of the Iran-Contra storm, but you will have to explain to them why some people thought Ronald Reagan was an unredeemed ogre.

The same occurs, of course, with other presidents. I was born just after Harry Truman left office, but throughout my childhood he was regarded as an unschooled loser; at best, people were just mild about Harry. Now the very aspects that made him so ordinary in real life, including his blunt language and temper, are the character traits that have transformed him into a folk hero.

Writers have something to do with that, of course. Merle Miller's 1974 book "Plain Speaking" started it, and David McCullough's heroic 1992 biography made Truman-worship the received faith. Both were popular triumphs. But Fred Greenstein's 1982 "Hidden-Hand Presidency" accomplished the same trick with Dwight D. Eisenhower, even though its author was a professor and the book is available in paperback now through the Johns Hopkins University Press, which isn't exactly known for supplying piles of books to Costco and Wal-Mart.

Greenstein's book has helped sow the new consensus that Ike knew what he was talking about even when you couldn't understand a word he was saying, and knew what he was doing even when it looked as if he wasn't doing very much at all, except putter around a golf course.

Lyndon Johnson is now in the same position. Some blacks regard him as a greater figure than even Lincoln. He's regarded as much as the prisoner of the Vietnam War as the perpetrator of it, and Robert Caro, the writer who emerged over the last decade as his greatest critic (and the scourge of the Johnson family), spent hundreds of pages in his 2002 book "Master of the Senate" showing how LBJ outfoxed the foxes of Capitol Hill to shepherd the 1957 Civil Rights Act into law.

Most presidents get the benefit of revisionism, which often takes its form as getting the popular benefit of the doubt. Jimmy Carter (high inflation, high interest rates, energy crisis, Iran hostages, wrecked helicopters in the desert, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the withdrawal from the 1980 Olympics) earned his the hard way, nail by nail in Habitat for Humanity houses.

Bill Clinton may yet get his redemption, but the most notable look at the Clinton years, this summer's "The Survivor" by John F. Harris, is pretty tough on the 42nd president. The time is too recent, the blemishes still too vivid, for Clinton to fade colorlessly into the pantheon of presidents on metal rulers and blue insurance-company calendars.

But the revisionism on Nixon is itself being revised. The man from Whittier is a cottage industry all his own.

In the end, it would not surprise me to find that before long Nixon is viewed as the master tactician of American politics in the second half of the century. Who, after all, was engaged in more tactical maneuvers than the man of Alger Hiss, the Kitchen Debate, the 1962 gubernatorial valedictory, the New Nixon, white backlash, law and order, wage and price controls, revenue-sharing and the Family Assistance Program? In that context, Watergate was but another maneuver - a tragic, terrible one, to be sure, but a maneuver nonetheless.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.