Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Speaking of Escalations and Presidential Hubris

In the broad arc of history, George Bush will be compared to Richard Nixon for some similarities, but Nixon was by far the wiser and better man. It's just that both men suffered such challenging, chilly and psychologically brutish childhoods. Freud would have a field day.

Bush will be compared to Nixon primarily for his antagonism toward the press and toward his "enemies," for his hidden agendas, for his impeachable offenses, for his disastrous escalation of an ill-wrought war and above all for his hubris as commander in chief.

We know little of Mr. Bush except for these traits. Even as he is sometimes only roughly comprehensible, Bush is not complicated, much less comprehensive. Mr. Nixon, for all of his own dark demons and in spite of his infamous downfall, was very complicated, very capable, and astonishingly comprehensive. Mr. Nixon was not an extravert, not a people's president, but at least he was not a pretender. Nixon was a man of the planet and of the intricacies of politics and diplomacy. And Nixon was in so many ways Mr. Bush would never recall, imagine or even acknowledge, quite a liberal.

We can't (or shouldn't) reduce Nixon's life, political career, and presidency to Watergate. Nixon inherited a much more liberal nation back then, from the summer of M.L.K. and Bobby and George Wallace and into the summer of love and the dread winter of war, fires burning abroad and at home. His options were wide open, and he did many good things. He was a relatively good president for the environment, for civil rights, for the handicapped, for Native Americans, even for the poor. A pet victory for me: it was Nixon who had the guts to make 55 'a law we could live with." Nixon ended the draft. He created the Environmental Protection Agency. He signed the Endangered Species Act. He funded scientific research as well as ANY president. And Nixon wasn't a born again hack or a fundamentalist anything. So let's give him his due, on this, his birthday.

On Garrison Keillor's wonderful weekday radio program "A Writer's Almanac," which I so highly recommend, Keillor gave a poignant portrait of Nixon today. You can listen to the brief program here, but just in case, here is what Homegrown Democrat Keillor said:

It's the birthday of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, born in Yorba Linda, California (1913). He had a childhood full of tragedy and disappointment. When Nixon was 12, his older brother got a headache that turned out to be meningitis. He died a month later. Nixon said that he cried for weeks afterwards. A few years later, Nixon's other brother caught tuberculosis and spent five years in a sanitarium before he died. The cost of his treatment drained the family's resources, and Nixon had to turn down a partial scholarship to Harvard. He did get a full scholarship to Duke Law School, but he had to live in a one-room house with no plumbing or electricity. He was forced to shave in the men's room of the Duke University library.

Nixon's luck only began to change when he decided to join the military during World War II. He'd been raised a Quaker, but he was interested in politics, and he knew that military service would look good on his résumé. One of the things he learned in the military was that he was a fantastic poker player. By the end of the war, he had earned almost $10,000. When he got back to civilian life, he used that money to fund his first political campaign.

He managed to win his first election for Congress, and he served as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, but he was defeated for the presidency by John F. Kennedy in 1960. Then, in 1962, he lost a campaign for governor of California, and suddenly it seemed like his career was over. But just six years later, he was elected president of the United States.

His policies as president were surprisingly liberal by today's standards. He began arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and eased relations with China. He established the Environmental Protection Agency, expanded Social Security and state welfare programs, and he tried to create a national health insurance system.

The Watergate investigations eventually forced Nixon to resign in 1974. At his last meeting with his Cabinet in 1974, Nixon burst into tears. He told them, "Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."


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