Commentary Magazine

In Praise of Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon remains the most enigmatic of American Presidents. He has been around longer than any other public man in the West, apart from François Mitterrand. His congressional career stretches back to 1947. He has been involved in great affairs since 1953, which makes him senior to anyone at the top level with the exception of Andrei Gromyko. He still travels, sees the eminent, writes widely-read books, and is constantly consulted by those in office. We ought to know everything about him by now. Yet we know very little.

It is impossible to predict how historians a hundred years from now will judge Nixon, a man whose career testifies both to the positive power of will and endurance in public life and to the destructive power of the East Coast establishment, his mortal enemy. His character is elusive; the inner man is almost totally inaccessible. What are we to make of this clever, articulate, energetic, wise, withdrawn, and solitary-seeming man? In particular, why did he arouse such overwhelming and persistent hostility among America’s educated classes?

Reading his latest book, 1999: Victory Without War1 a survey of world prospects over the next decade, suggesting ways in which American policy-makers can meet the challenge of a more intelligent and sophisticated Soviet leadership, I find that two complementary explanations suggest themselves, the first political, the second personal.

As a man Nixon is complex, but as a political thinker he is fairly straightforward. His views have changed little in forty years. He is a conservative realist. He does not believe in Utopias or millenarian settlements. He thinks there will always be genuine conflicts of interest—political, economic, military as well as ideological—between nations, especially great powers, which cannot be resolved by good will alone. “Only when countries have accepted the existence of conflict,” he writes, “and sought to manage it through a balance of power, have enduring periods of general peace resulted.”

For this reason Nixon has always insisted both on national strength and continuing negotiations. It is the theme of his new book and the theme of his life. Each without the other is dangerous. Both of them together, in the right combination, constitute the true road to national security.

In the late 1940’s, Nixon made himself notorious for insisting that America’s national strength must not be undermined from within. In the late 1950’s he was associated with the Eisenhower-Dulles global-security system, but also with the summitry which marked the end of the decade. As President, he maintained the effectiveness of the U.S. deterrent to the limit of the political possibilities of the day, but he also ended the cold war in the Far East by opening windows to China—a great historic achievement. In retirement he has constantly pointed out that, while the United States should welcome and encourage any sign of liberalization in Soviet Russia, it should never confuse such changes with a Soviet abandonment of basic foreign-policy aims. He repeats this message with great force in the present volume.

All this is clear enough, but it does not, in itself, explain the antagonism he has always aroused among liberals. It is, I suspect, a question of tone. Nixon has no political small talk. Probably because it is not in his nature, he does not oil the wheels of ideological discourse. He cannot, or will not, and in any event does not make the smallest genuflection to any liberal shibboleth. He does not mask his views in emollient clichés. He is direct; as the liberals would say, crude.

Let us take one example. We all of us, liberals included, know in our hearts that the United Nations has failed. Nixon says so openly, without qualification, and without much regret. Moreover, he insists, in equally unvarnished words, on explaining why: “What moves the world for good or ill is power, and no sovereign nation will give up its power to the UN or any other body—not now and not ever. This is an immutable aspect of national character.” Liberals find this kind of statement hard to take, and all the harder in that they have an uneasy feeling it may be true, or at least partly true. But their resentment tends to focus not on the harsh facts of global existence but on the man who has had the bad manners to draw attention to them.

What makes Nixon’s insistence that the world is run by realpolitik and national interest even more objectionable to liberals is that he is as much an idealist as they are; but in his way, not theirs. Streetwise in the global metropolis, Nixon is nonetheless in many respects an old-fashioned evangelical American patriot. He rose by hard work from humble origins to the world’s highest office. He is deeply grateful to the fair and free society which made such an ascent possible, and he is anxious to pay his debt to it. He also believes, as all Americans up to recent decades were taught to believe, that providence has been good to America as a whole, and that America as a society and a great power has incurred reciprocal obligations. He states openly: “Almost nowhere else on earth are people as secure and as prosperous as in the United States. Both our great power and our great blessings challenge us to adopt policies in both foreign and domestic affairs whose ultimate goal is to make the world safer and better.”

Liberals find this tone of voice, coming on top of the realpolitik, insufferable. They feel it is sanctimonious, hypocritical, sly, self-seeking. They believe it springs from a devious nature incapable of truth. The idea that it might be totally and passionately sincere is inconceivable to them. From the start, then, liberal antipathy to Nixon was and is based on a profound misunderstanding of his moral character.

Dislike is deepened by social contempt. It is often assumed by foreigners, and believed by Americans themselves, that class plays no part in American politics. This may be generally true, but there are certainly exceptions, and the anti-Nixon syndrome is one of them. Nixon was a hard-working man who raised himself not from romantic poverty but from the dullest of lower-middle-class backgrounds. He did so early and quickly and without acquiring any of the social graces or eccentricities or gimmicks or rhetorical flourishes or parlor tricks which make a climber interesting. Nor did he ever learn to hide his obvious ambition or cloak it in the progressive sentiments of the day.



Like everyone else in politics, Nixon wanted fame and power, but he did not know how to make his yearnings culturally respectable. There was nothing about him—his school, his tastes, his choice of language, his friends, his interests, his heroes, his reading—that was remotely fashionable. He could at times be gauche, say the wrong thing, make the awkward, grating gesture. To East Coast liberals from assured, easy backgrounds and Ivy League schools, he appeared to be everything they most detested: brash, self-seeking, uncultured, greedy for money and power, devoid of noblesse oblige, hard and materialistic. They could not bear the thought of being ruled by him and his like. Immediately after the 1960 presidential election, a victorious John F. Kennedy contemptuously summed up this feeling: Nixon, he said, “went out like he came in—no class.”

To a European, this comment, coming from the son of a man who was little better than a financial gangster, is full of ironies. The Kennedys, to an outside observer, far from embodying the principle of American legitimacy, appear rather to illustrate the rapacity with which a predatory immigrant clan exploits the opportunities America offers: the unscrupulous father amassing wealth so that his indulged and conscienceless offspring may buy their way into office and power. Visiting Washington as British Prime Minister shortly after Kennedy was elected, Harold Macmillan commented: “It’s rather like watching the Borgia brothers take over a respectable North Italian town.” As time goes by, and the sins of the Kennedys multiply with the generations, the comparison seems ever more apt.

But whatever their moral shortcomings—and these were seen less clearly in the 1960’s than now—the younger Kennedys possessed enviable social advantages. They not only had a lot of money but had never been put to the coarsening trouble of earning it. They made the appropriate cultural noises. They had the right academic and media connections, and could buy more if necessary. They had their own court historians and tame editors. They spoke the liberal vernacular with zeal if not from inner conviction. Most important of all, they exercised, like any other self-assured aristocracy, however ersatz, a powerful appeal over the intelligentsia, which will always prefer a graceful prince to a self-made man. To the intellectuals, and to East Coast liberals generally, the 1960 election was between “us” and “them,” a Manichean struggle between enlightenment and materialism.

In fact it was one of the most corrupt elections of modern times, with the Democratic machine forced to play all its grubby cards to get Kennedy elected at all. He won by a whisker in circumstances which will always make the validity of his election dubious. It says a lot for Nixon’s old-fashioned notions of patriotism and decorum—“no class” notwithstanding—that he refused to challenge the result. And so it was that Camelot came into being, the glittering antithesis of Nixonian suburbia: in the foreground, cerebral rhetoric, haute couture, patronage of the arts; in the background, sexual athletics with Mafia molls, shielded by a compliant press.

But in due course the cloudcapp’d palaces were magicked away by an assassin’s bullet. In Lyndon Johnson, the liberal establishment found itself landed with a much less congenial figure. If you lifted the lid on Johnson a whiff of unmistakable sulfur emerged; in time, indeed, he began to seem to many liberals a far more obvious incarnation of evil than their old enemy, Nixon. In the process of destroying LBJ, however, the East Coast media overlooked the fact that success would open the way for none other than Nixon himself, since Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s chosen successor, was inevitably and fatally damaged in the demolition process.



So in 1968 Nixon became President after all, and great was the gnashing of teeth in the liberal middle and upper classes. His was the first postwar administration from which the East Coast establishment was largely excluded, its places taken by men, often Californians, anti-intellectuals, and provincials, who aroused in the liberal soul a peculiar detestation. That Nixon set about fulfilling his campaign promise of scaling down, then ending, the Vietnam war was neither here nor there: once again, it was the tone that was objectionable.

Nixon made no secret of the fact that he disliked the metropolitan media. Worse, he developed an alarming skill at speaking over the head of the media directly to the American people, taking it upon himself to voice the hopes and fears of what he termed “the silent majority.” While never exactly popular—incapable, perhaps, of being popular with any wide section of the community—he became an extremely effective populist.

If the Nixon victory of 1968 was hard for the liberals to bear, his landslide of 1972 was insupportable, particularly since Nixon had openly accepted the Democratic candidacy of Senator George McGovern as an opportunity for the contest he had sought: Middle America against progressive pandaemonium. “Here is a situation,” Nixon exultantly told his staff, “where the Eastern establishment media finally has a candidate who almost totally shares their views.” He added that the “real ideological bent of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and the three TV networks” was “on the side of amnesty, pot, abortion, confiscations of wealth (unless it is theirs), massive increases in welfare, unilateral disarmament, reduction of our defenses, and surrender in Vietnam.” At last, then, “the country will find out whether what the media has been standing for during these last five years really represents the majority thinking.”

Nixon’s overwhelming victory, carrying the Electoral College 521 to 17 and picking up over 60 percent of the popular vote, ought to have settled the matter. But it did not. Although the events which led up to Watergate and Nixon’s abdication are extremely complicated, one salient fact must be borne in mind. The Eastern liberal establishment never really admitted the legitimacy of the Nixon administration. From the start, the media interests which spoke for the establishment treated the Nixon presidency as in some metaphysical sense an outlaw regime whose true, unconstitutional character would eventually be exposed. The powerful barons of the Eastern press and TV felt themselves morally and constitutionally entitled to snatch back the power he had secured from the voters by (as they saw it) chicanery. All they needed was a pretext.

Nixon played into their hands. His deep sense of insecurity, reinforced by what was now almost a paranoid hatred and fear of the press, led him to confuse a perfectly justified desire to prevent the media from publishing state secrets—as they had done in the case of the Pentagon Papers and other documents—with the routine skulduggery of party-political espionage. The result was the Watergate mess.



In essence, Watergate was a mess and nothing more. The Nixon administration’s record of misuse of power and raison d’état was no worse than that of Truman and Eisenhower, and considerably better than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. There was none of the personal corruption which had marked the rule of Lyndon Johnson, let alone the gross immoralities and security risks of John F. Kennedy’s White House. Nixon’s sins were venial and sprang mostly from misplaced loyalty. The notion that he plotted an assault on the Constitution and the rule of law is a malicious invention.

Indeed, the way in which the opportunities offered by Watergate were exploited by the Eastern media, aided by a hostile Congress—a key element in the story—and by a section of the legal establishment to whom Nixon was anathema, is a frightening example of how the will of a popular majority can be frustrated and overturned by the skillful manipulation of press and TV. This was the first media Putsch in history, as ruthless and anti-democratic as any military coup by bemedaled generals with their sashes and sabers. It is obvious that Nixon, a responsible and experienced statesman preoccupied with the international problems of the early 1970’s, not least the appalling Middle East crisis of autumn 1973 and its disastrous economic aftermath, consistently underestimated the unscrupulousness of his media enemies and their willingness to sacrifice the national interest in the pursuit of their institutional vendetta.

So great was the inequity of Nixon’s downfall that future historians may well conclude he would have been justified in allowing events to take their course and in subjecting the nation to the prolonged paralysis of a public impeachment, which at least would have given him the opportunity to defend himself by due process of law. But once again his patriotism took precedence over his self-interest, and he cut short the national agony by a voluntary abdication. In defeat he was dignified and not at all disposed to recriminate. The episode wrecked his official career, but going through the fire strengthened and refined his moral character. By a curious paradox Richard Nixon was one of the very few people who emerged from the Watergate affair with credit. But he remained, and remains, as mysterious as ever.



Fallen statesmen rarely rise again. But it pays them to live long. Nixon, like Herbert Hoover before him, has survived nearly all his enemies. And he has made much better use of his retirement than Hoover did. Few men have been more successful at putting the past behind them and looking firmly into the future.

His new book is only one example of the assiduity and genuine excitement with which Nixon scans the distant horizons of geopolitics. There are few retired Washington giants—Henry Kissinger is an exception—who keep themselves so well briefed on the state of the world, or who have more worthwhile observations to make about it. In its modest way, 1999: Victory Without War is an excellent geopolitical primer, which, if academics were not so prejudiced, could well serve as an introductory textbook in courses in political science.

By the term “victory” in the title, Nixon does not mean an ideological or economic conquest but rather a process of persuasion whereby the freedoms generally recognized as desirable and productive can be more widely, and eventually universally, spread. He looks first at the present posture of the two superpowers. Then, in three carefully argued chapters, he shows how the United States can peacefully prevent the Soviets from making risky forward moves, how it can match and refute Soviet propaganda in the uncommitted world, and, not least, how it can effectively negotiate with Moscow to reduce tension and arms budgets.

Nixon next turns to the three economic-growth areas—Western Europe, which he calls “the fragmented giant”; Japan, the “reluctant giant”; and China, the “awakened giant”—which will in his judgment expand the present two superpowers into five, and shows how each of them can play a constructive role in the negotiation-from-strength process he envisages. He then provides a survey of Third World theaters of conflict where competition between economic and political systems is most intense.



Nixon’s final chapter concerns the United States itself, and is a plea that Americans will reinforce their material success by a return to the pristine idealism of the men who created what he calls “the animating principles of our country.” In his view, the new thinking which Gorbachev is urging his Soviet comrades to adopt should be matched by a fundamental reappraisal of America’s conduct and role. Nixon wants Americans to be remembered “not just as a good people who took care of themselves without doing harm to others” but as a “great people” who went “beyond the call of duty” in helping to enlarge the freedoms enjoyed all over the world.

This is the kind of traditional nationalist idealism which Nixon’s critics find insincere and repellent. To me, as an outsider who feels none of this emotional hostility to the ex-President, it seems patently sincere, almost painfully so. Moreover, I think it strikes echoes among a very large number of ordinary Americans. One of Nixon’s greatest strengths is his nose for what the voters feel at any given time. There can be few men whose judgment of the American political scene is so shrewd and penetrating, as well as surprisingly objective.

Most ex-Presidents are anxious to offer their advice to those who succeed them, and find themselves consulted often out of mere courtesy. Nixon’s advice, by contrast, is eagerly solicited and often taken. He probably exercises more political influence than any other Western statesman not actually in office. Considering the depths of degradation from which he has climbed, this is a remarkable achievement.

In thus rehabilitating himself, Nixon has displayed courage, endurance, persistence, patience, skill, and—there is no other word for it—magnanimity. This greatness of heart is something his enemies never dreamed he possessed, and helps to explain their misunderstanding of his nature. “No class”: today, the cruel snobbery of the phrase reflects solely on the man who uttered it, and whose own reputation declines with every fresh unveiling of the record. To the contrary: the last fifteen years have shown that Richard Nixon has a lot of class. But it remains to be seen whether history will give him the justice his contemporaries denied him.




1 Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $19.95

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.