Commentary Magazine


Topic: detente

The Lessons Of Nixonian Politics

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.

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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.

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Scoop Jackson at 100

Freedom25, a group that seeks to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Soviet Jewry, reminds us that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Senator Henry Jackson, the intrepid Democratic senator from Washington State who was a bulwark of the fight for freedom against Communism.

Jackson is worth remembering not just because of his hard work for the just cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry and his dogged opposition to appeasement of the Soviet Union. His career embodied a rare brand of patriotism as well as insight into international affairs. He was also the best example of a political breed that is now all but extinct: a liberal on domestic issues who was an ardent hawk on foreign affairs. It is on the shoulders of men like Jackson that a genuine bipartisan consensus on defense issues, opposition to Soviet tyranny and support for the State of Israel was built. Though he passed away in 1983, all these years later he is still deeply missed by his country.

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Freedom25, a group that seeks to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Soviet Jewry, reminds us that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Senator Henry Jackson, the intrepid Democratic senator from Washington State who was a bulwark of the fight for freedom against Communism.

Jackson is worth remembering not just because of his hard work for the just cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry and his dogged opposition to appeasement of the Soviet Union. His career embodied a rare brand of patriotism as well as insight into international affairs. He was also the best example of a political breed that is now all but extinct: a liberal on domestic issues who was an ardent hawk on foreign affairs. It is on the shoulders of men like Jackson that a genuine bipartisan consensus on defense issues, opposition to Soviet tyranny and support for the State of Israel was built. Though he passed away in 1983, all these years later he is still deeply missed by his country.

The expression “Scoop Jackson Democrat” is a term that is now falling out of use because there are few liberals left who understand that while Americans can afford to differ on domestic policy and the economy, we must present a united front against foes of liberty. Though once his sort of politician was commonplace in an era when both major parties were “big tents,” nowadays it is inconceivable that a Democrat who shared Jackson’s worldview could survive a primary. This principle was conclusively proven when Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman lost the Democratic nomination for the Senate the last time he ran for re-election in 2006 because of his support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lieberman, who is retiring from the Senate this year largely because another independent run would be unlikely to succeed, is aptly termed the last such “Scoop Jackson Democrat.”

Though nowadays many claim credit for securing the freedom of Soviet Jewry, in the early days of the movement, support from major political figures was by no means automatic. But Jackson, whose opposition to Soviet imperialism was a matter of principle, not political convenience, was steadfast in his advocacy for Moscow’s captives. Undeterred by the fashionable support for détente with the Soviet Union championed by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Jackson became a thorn in the side of both the Nixon and Ford administrations as well as of the Kremlin. His sponsorship of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment linking Soviet trading rights to the right of Jews to emigrate became an impassable roadblock to those who wished to prioritize commerce with the evil empire over freedom. Despite Kissinger’s efforts to outmaneuver him, Jackson prevailed, and his signature legislation became the lever by which Soviet policy was undermined and eventually overthrown.

Today, we hear a great deal about the need for bipartisanship, a line of argument that is generally a cover for getting officials to throw their principles overboard in order to accommodate the majority. Jackson’s brand of bipartisanship was of a different variety. It was forged in a belief that the defense of freedom at home and abroad was a higher calling than the appeal of parties or presidents. Without him, the consensus in support of Israel’s fight for survival as well as opposition to Soviet tyranny would have been diminished if not impossible.

Though Jackson’s brand of Democrat may no longer be the flavor of month, his example still inspires new generations of thinkers and activists who uphold the ideas he held dear. It is no accident that when a British group dedicated to those principles was formed, it took his name. Henry Jackson’s 100th birthday is an occasion for us to celebrate the victories he won on behalf of Soviet Jewry and American ideas, but it should also be a moment for us to rededicate ourselves to the brand of patriotism for which he is the exemplar. May his memory be for a blessing.

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