Let’s spend a moment this winter Wednesday on Richard Nixon, who would’ve turned 100 today. A couple of years back we published a book called No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, in which David Courtwright shows that, despite the common conception, America took no severe turn away from liberalism during the conservative golden age engineered in the wake of Johnson’s Great Society. In the excerpt below, Courtwright details how Nixon won the allegiance of conservative power-brokers without actually delivering the reforms they sought. (Spoiler: Portnoy takes the fall.)
Nixon saw himself as the leader of a band of tough-minded intellectuals who could achieve power and reverse the national decline by making common cause with the white working class. What hard-hats and beauticians lacked in learning they made up for with an uncorrupted moral sense. The same applied to the Hispanics. “They do have some concept of the manly life, at least,” Nixon told John Ehrlichman, his chief domestic-policy adviser. “They don’t live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do.” The nominally Protestant Nixon was all for priests knocking some sense into their charges. He never lost his conviction that religious belief was indispensable for public order. He trusted, and was trusted by, voters of morally conservative temperament. They embraced him as one of their own, despite the peculiarity of his youthful Quakerism and the vagueness of his adult beliefs. Nixon lived what Clare Luce foresaw: temperament supplanting creed in politics. He thought this way himself. When he railed against “the Jews,” Nixon meant left-liberal Jews, not the Orthodox.
Nixon was discreet about where he did his railing. When Billy Graham privately complained that Jews were behind pornography, that their grip on the media had to be broken, Nixon immediately agreed. “Boy, I can’t ever say that,” he admitted. “But I believe it.” Nixon often held his tongue. Everyone knew that public schooling was lousy, he complained to Ehrlichman. The thing was, you couldn’t say so, or you’d provoke the education establishment. “We’ll praise them—pat them on the ass. A demagogue could make a lot of votes on this issue—we’ve got to live with them.”
It was a revealing piece of hypocrisy. Given his right-conservative temperament, Nixon would have preferred a domestic policy aimed at reducing taxes, bureaucracy, union influence, crime, vice, spending, and the supply of money. That he did none of these things consistently, that he presided over an erratically liberal domestic policy, was due to a fateful combination of circumstances. Nixon was the first elected president in 120 years to assume office with the opposition party controlling both houses of Congress. Democrats commanded Capitol Hill, their bureaucratic allies the granite-clad buildings that ran like outworks beneath it. To call Nixon paranoid, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman observed, was to ignore very real enemies throughout the government, the press, and the establishment. They could block any reactionary policy shift.
Not that domestic legislation was Nixon’s primary concern. He could use his executive authority to keep faith on key issues. He would nominate judges who were conservative on crime. He would cast his attorney general, John Mitchell, as a “helluva crime-fighter,” Dick Tracy with a pipe. He would propose bills halting busing to achieve racial balance, softening the blow with more money for inner-city schools. He would pursue peace with honor in Vietnam, the doves be damned. “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that,” he told 80 million television viewers on November 3, 1969. The silent-majority address, the most important of his presidency, gave Nixon a bump in the polls and time for a fateful gamble. He thought he could prevail in peace negotiations by building up South Vietnam, intimidating North Vietnam, and getting the divided Soviets and Chinese to back off their client. As in poker and football, two obsessions that shaped Nixon’s worldview, what counted was the gutsy call at the right time. Foreign-policy decisions made or broke presidencies. Domestic mistakes were fixable. Congress could tinker with the details. The Kremlin was less forgiving.
What mattered about domestic policy was its political impact. Nixon’s grand objective, realignment, required more than moral and racial appeals. Blue-collar workers wanted workplace protections and more generous retirement benefits; Nixon gave them both. Though he privately regarded environmentalism as a radical stalking horse, he coopted the public’s growing anxiety over pollution with measures like the 1970 Environmental Protection Act. Free-market orthodoxy never stood between him and votes. In August 1971, anxious to address the trade deficit and inflation before an election year, he ended the direct convertibility of the dollar to gold, decreed a surcharge on imports, and imposed a temporary freeze on wages, profits, and prices. Hotel managers who wanted to change their pay-toilet locks from a dime to a quarter were told to wait. “The conservatives got the rhetoric and the liberals got the government,” complained Howard Phillips, a budget hawk who walked out of the Republican Party in 1974. Far from dismantling the Great Society, Nixon had expanded it. Allocations for social spending were 60 percent higher in Nixon’s last fiscal year than in Johnson’s.
If spending generates votes, so does anger. But after the polls close, anger is best reduced to a low simmer. As president, Nixon avoided overt demagoguery. He wanted to be like Dwight Eisenhower or Charles de Gaulle, not George Wallace. Let someone else confront the hecklers. He would content himself with nods to God and country. He wore a flag lapel pin, appeared with Billy Graham, tut-tutted New York State’s liberal abortion law, and attended Sunday services in the East Room with a carefully selected mix of VIPs and POW wives. Colson invited Evangelical leaders to the White House, showed them around the West Wing, then casually suggested that they drop by the Oval Office. Nixon reeled them in with a few well-rehearsed words and a pair of gold-plated presidential cuff links. They practically bowed on the way out.
Nixon landed bigger fish on the presidential yacht, over chateaubriand and vintage Bordeaux in the main salon. Briefed by Colson, he made sure to display his knowledge of the religious issues that concerned his guest. At intervals Nixon would interrupt the conversation to say, “Chuck, I want this done. This man is right. You order the attorney general to take care of that tomorrow morning.” It was not all an act. “The president meant what he said, and we even thought some of the things might be accomplished,” Colson allowed. “But what ever else happened, that religious leader was convinced that Richard Nixon was on his side.” Politics, Colson saw, was about how “people in power use power to keep themselves in power.” Sympathetic or not, politicians worked special-interest groups for everything they could get. Nixon simply worked harder than the rest.
He also worked more subtly. He exploited “the Social Issue”—street crime, race riots, defiant kids, and permissiveness—through deft gestures. He even ordered the removal of Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s comedic novel of sexual obsession, from the White House library and then leaked the news that he had done so. But he mostly refrained from overt attacks on welfare queens and newsroom lefties. That was why the tapes were so scurrilous: Nixon was venting in private what he could not express in public. He was letting his hair down with the boys—only the boys, Nixon’s prejudices fully extending to women. Kissinger went so far as to call the White House atmosphere “slightly homosexual,” though intensely homosocial would be more accurate. Yet Nixon supported the ERA and sought a conservative female Supreme Court nominee, rubbing his hands over the prospect of Senate liberals taking their law-and-order pill with a sugar-coating of feminism. He really was Tricky Dick.