My younger self, the one in tie-dye and bell bottoms, driving a tattered VW festooned with peace signs, would have howled at the blasphemy penned by his 2017 version.
But someone needs to defend Richard Nixon.
Tricky Dick was no Donald Trump.
Their differences are as striking as the disparities between their respective South Florida getaways. Nixon’s “winter White House” was a modest ranch house in Key Biscayne. Remember the hell raised over the $400,000 expenditure of public money to build a helipad on the property? That’s a fraction of taxpayer money we are frittering away on Trump’s golf junkets (an estimated $3 million a pop).
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The house at 500 Bay Lane was torn down in 2004, which tells you something about Nixonian grandeur.
The current president has spent 13 weekends of his young presidency at his wildly opulent gold-flaked digs in Palm Beach (before Mar-a-Lago closed for the season and sent him to his golf club in New Jersey).
To think we once mocked Nixon for his flubbed attempt at creating an “imperial presidency” after he outfitted White House guards in gold-trimmed tunics and peaked hats.
Dark Nixonian comparisons have been percolating through Washington since Trump’s inauguration but they hit full-blown Watergate redux with the firing of the FBI director on Tuesday evening. Google “Saturday Night Massacre” and suddenly you’ll find James Comey’s name mentioned with Watergate martyrs Archibald Cox, Elliott Richardson,William Ruckelshaus.
But, please, some perspective here. Nixon was so much more complicated than Trump. His story was a Shakespearean tragedy, a nearly great leader undone by his own character flaws. He had enemies, sure, but they were hardly worthy of his outsized paranoia. The notion that he needed to bend the law to win the 1972 election — to beat George McGovern for heaven’s sake — remains incomprehensible.
But what separates Nixon from the paranoid currently occupying the Oval Office (when he’s not golfing) — Nixon accomplished stuff. Nixon, the disgraced politician forced to resign rather than face impeachment, left a stunning legacy of legislative achievements.
Richard Nixon promised a “profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man.”
Nixon signed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Mammal Marine Protection Act. He created the very Environmental Protection Agency that Trump’s minions seem intent on dismantling. In 1970, he wrote of a “profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man.”
Not exactly a Trumpian sentiment.
He lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Nixon, who supported the (failed) Equal Rights Amendment, signed Title IX, giving women a shot at equality in intercollegiate athletics.
Nixon gave us the Legal Services Corporation “as a means of delivering high quality legal assistance to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it.”
He started OSHA to oversee workplace safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, added a cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security, expanded food stamp and welfare spending.
Nixon proposed a national health care system that would have made Obamacare look like a Republican counterproposal. “Without adequate health care, no one can make full use of his or her talents and opportunities. It is thus just as important that economic, racial and social barriers not stand in the way of good health care as it is to eliminate those barriers to a good education and a good job,” he wrote.
It was this stanch anti-communist who opened up trade with China. He negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union.
Nixon’s accomplishments were born out of negotiation and compromise with the political factions in Congress. For him, the art of the deal wasn’t a simple catchphrase. He would have blanched at comparisons to a president whose biggest accomplishment so far has been to double the membership fees at Mar-a-Lago.
Of course, he had terrible flaws. And, as his secret tapes revealed, Nixon could descend into ugly, vulgar, bigoted tirades against his perceived enemies.
Me, a kid of the ’60s, I loathed him. Yet I don’t recall, even at the height of the Watergate scandal, that this flawed leader would, in some fit of petulance, risk national security. (Or allow the Russians to undermine our democracy.) Not like today. I never felt, with Nixon in charge, that I was a passenger on a speeding bus on a mountain road with a raving, angry drunk at the wheel.
Another striking divergence with Donald Trump: Nixon resisted the temptation to fire his FBI director. Oval Office tapes, made public two decades after Nixon left office, recorded the president muttering that J. Edgar Hoover “oughta resign ... He should get the hell out of there.”
But Nixon would not do to Hoover what Trump just did to James Comey. “I think we’ve got to avoid the situation where he could leave with a blast,” Nixon told Attorney General John Mitchell. “We may have on our hands here a man who will pull down the temple with him, including me.”
Trump could have used some similar foresight. By firing Comey and failing to anticipate the bipartisan blowback, our tempestuous president may have unwittingly loosened a keystone in Temple Trump.