For many people, Richard Nixon’s centennial is yet another excuse for trotting out Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and reliving one of the great triumphs of 20th century liberalism. Richard Nixon was the bête noire of a generation of Democrats and the process by which he received what they believed were his just deserts seemed to vindicate every epithet that had ever been thrown at a man who first came to the country’s attention as a dedicated opponent of Communism. As Politico notes, unlike other former presidents who have their fans, the tribe of Nixonians is pretty small. That’s because Republicans as well as Democrats associate him primarily with Watergate, rendering any good or bad done during a long political career to the margins of history.
Yet there is more to his legacy than the tapes and the break-in. The more one thinks about his record as president the less there is to like. That’s because the 37th president is someone who teaches us that character is a fungible quality in politics. The lack of it not only allows a president to violate the law and to misuse his power. It also can lead to the abandonment of principle with regard to political issues. Though there is always the temptation for conservatives to take up the cudgels for anyone liberals hate (a factor that helped Nixon retain the loyalty of many Republicans during his career) he also ought to be remembered as an example of a Republican who betrayed the voters in a vain attempt to gain popularity. That’s a memory that ought to haunt contemporary conservatives who may believe the task of governing requires them to check their principles at the door to the Capitol.
Evaluating Nixon’s presidency is hard work for anyone who wants to talk about anything but Watergate. But as much as Nixon provided liberals with a target, it should also be remembered that he gave conservatives an example to avoid too. That’s because Nixon’s principle domestic achievements as president were important milestones in the descent of America into the malaise of big government liberalism.
While his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency is most often cited as an interesting historical irony, it was just one of many excursions into the creation of the superstate that conservatives of our own day are struggling to cut back. Nixon’s willingness to use his war powers was seen as an “imperial presidency” by his liberal opponents, but the same tendency led him to breach every principle of conservative governance to impose wage and price controls on the economy. That disastrous experiment testified to Nixon’s lack of any political principles as much as Watergate exposed his lack of a moral compass when it came to political espionage.
Nor were his betrayals limited to domestic policy. His trip to China and the establishment of ties with Beijing are rightly praised as a bold stroke that discomfited the Soviets. But the abandonment of his anti-Communist roots was not limited to that initiative. It was Nixon’s championing of détente with Moscow that kept the evil empire alive for longer that it should have. It was also primarily responsible for the dark decade of Soviet expansionism and proxy wars around the globe that followed. Far from being a foreign policy genius, as some would have it, his cynical realpolitik approach did as much damage to the world as his liberal economic schemes did at home.
Nixon isn’t the Republican who abandoned conservative ideas when he got personal control of the federal leviathan. But there is no better example of the consequences of such folly. Nixon’s presidency will always be seen as a tragic failure because of his resignation in disgrace. But even if we leave that aside, it ought to remain a toxic model for future generations of conservatives.