Nixon without Watergate; it’s like Beethoven without music or The Godfather without violence.
Yet there was a lot more to the five and half years of Richard Nixon’s presidency. That record, ironically, is largely painful for the conservatives who supported him for a quarter century, and not a bad one for the liberals who despised him.
His opening to China in 1972 had been advocated by many liberals, but Democratic presidents weren’t willing to take the political risk. Today, it is considered one of the great foreign-policy successes of the past half century.
Nixon also presided over a policy of detente with the former Soviet Union, negotiating arms pacts and resisting the more confrontational approach of hardliners.
Vietnam is a black mark. He continued the war, started by Democrats. More than 21,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam in the Nixon years. The then-secret Nixon tape recordings, many of which have now been released, reveal that Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his chief foreign policy adviser, knew that the American-backed South Vietnamese government would lose the war; it did in 1975 — less than a year after Nixon left office.
Domestically, the picture was mixed, but again there is some cheer for liberals. He created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and tapped the exceptionally able William Ruckelshaus to run it. This was one of the few large government re-organizations that really worked.
He was out front on consumer issues, although he caved to the tobacco lobby in firing Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld, who died Wednesday.
He proposed a national healthcare plan, with federal subsidies; the late Ted Kennedy later expressed regret that he and other Democrats didn’t get behind this at the time. He also proposed a negative income tax for poor people, expanded food stamps and enacted Supplemental Security Income for those with disabilities and the elderly.
On civil rights, the good and bad Nixons both emerged. The so-called Southern Strategy to shore up electoral support in the formerly Democratic region was, in part, a pander to racial animosities. Yet he also was one of the fathers of government-initiated affirmative action.
The most radical, if often forgotten, Nixon policy was a disaster. With an eye to his re-election and troubled economy, in August 1971 he imposed wage and price controls on the economy. They provided a short-term bonus for him, but contributed to an inflation bubble when they came off several years later. (A delicious piece of trivia: Two of the top administrators of Nixon’s big-government wage and price controls were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.)
That summer, I was a kid reporter covering economics for the Wall Street Journal and had my own exposure, without fully realizing it, to the White House Watergate mindset. The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Arthur Burns, a longtime Nixon counselor, was worried about creeping inflation, and publicly calling on the White House to adopt an “incomes policy” — basically, to use political suasion to pressure companies and unions to moderate price and wage increases.
This annoyed the White House, and an aide to Nixon’s henchman Charles Colson summoned me, promising a big scoop. On background, which could be attributed to “White House sources,” he said Nixon was so offended by Burns that he was considering increasing the size of of the Federal Reserve Board — in essence, court-packing — and insisted that Burns was a hypocrite because he was privately lobbying for a pay increase for himself.
Under the guidance of Alan Otten, my great bureau chief, we reshaped a story as a war of nerves between the White House and the Fed. The Burns pay raise tip turned out to be bogus.
Only weeks later, Nixon went way beyond anything Burns had suggested and imposed controls on most American wages and prices.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau.
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