Nixon At 101

Yesterday was Richard Nixon’s birthday. “Tricky Dick,” who was the only American President ever to resign from office, would have been 101.

It’s interesting that Nixon, much more so than many other of his political contemporaries, remains a relevant, well-known figure today. Nobody talks much about Hubert Humphrey, or Barry Goldwater, or even Lyndon Johnson or Dwight Eisenhower, but Nixon always finds his way into political conversations. For example, some people are comparing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s long press conference yesterday to Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, in which Nixon adeptly defused allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct. The “Checkers” speech was the first real evidence of the power of TV in dealing with a political scandal, and it remains a touchstone even today.

Nixon isn’t remembered for his political positions. There isn’t a Nixon wing of the Republican party, and it’s hard to think of any current politician who is even remotely comparable to him. Instead, Nixon’s existence as a significant political figure at the dawn of the TV and mass media age, his demonstrations of how TV can have a positive and negative impact, and the fact that he endured the worst scandal in the nation’s history and resigned in disgrace will always make him a point of comparison.

And for every positive juxtaposition — Will Christie’s press conference be as effective as the “Checkers” speech? Is President X’s new global initiative the boldest foreign policy gambit since Nixon’s China strategy? — there will be thousands of uses of Nixon as a negative marker. The worst debate appearance since Nixon seemed to have a five o’clock shadow in his debate with Kennedy. The worst self-pitying press conference since Nixon said “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” after he lost a race for California Governor in 1962. The most self-revealing comment since Nixon said “I am not a crook.” And, of course, the worst scandal since Watergate. The fact that, 40 years later, people still try to put “gate” on every scandal is powerful testimony to Nixon’s lasting place in the American political firmament.

Richard Nixon resigned 40 years ago and died 20 years ago, but the references to him are still fresh and constant. He will always be a significant historical figure and an instant measuring stick when something bad happens to a politician who aspires to the presidency or who already occupies the Oval Office.

The “Super Committee” And The Nixon-To-China Opening

The 12 members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction have been appointed.  Six Republicans, six Democrats; six Senators, six Representatives.  This so-called “Super Committee” will now see whether it can reach agreement on a plan to reduce deficits by at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years.  If they can’t, cuts to defense spending and discretionary programs will take effect.  If they can, their proposal goes directly to the House and Senate floors for up or down votes.

Predictably, each side is criticizing the other side’s choices as political hacks, zealots, empty suits, or outright nuts.  And each side also is expressing concern about their own side’s selections.  Will they stand up to the pressure, or cave in and sacrifice the party’s principles?  Only one person need break ranks to join the other side on a compromise proposal.

From my perspective, the Democratic and Republican selections appear to be predictable, safe, controlled choices who are true to their parties’ principles.  Obviously, they all enjoy credibility with the party leadership, and my guess is that they have similar credibility with the vast majority of the members of their respective caucuses.

This may make reaching an agreement more difficult, but I also wonder whether these selections don’t also allow a possible Nixon-to-China moment.  When President Nixon visited China as part of a diplomatic initiative to open relations with that nation, many noted that Nixon was one of the few people who could do so without being criticized as a communist sympathizer or squishy on national defense.  If a long-time, staunch anti-Communist like Tricky Dick thought opening relations with China and shaking hands with Mao Zedong was a good idea, who could be heard to complain?

Perhaps the reputations of the Super Committee members as stalwart defenders of their parties’ positions on spending and taxes similarly will make any compromise they may reach more saleable in the House and Senate.  If partisans as diverse as Patty Murray and Pat Toomey, Jeb Hensarling and James Clyburn, could possibly find common ground, wouldn’t that provide some cover for others to support the deal?

It’s Time To Get Rid Of “Presidents’ Day”

Today — February 22 — is the birthday of George Washington.  Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is February 12.  Do we have a federal holiday on the actual birth date of either of those two colossal historical figures, who generally rank as the two greatest Presidents in American history?  No, we don’t.

James Buchanan doesn't deserve a holiday!

Instead, we have a holiday called “Presidents’ Day” that is easily the lamest holiday of the year.  There apparently were two steps in its creation.  First, Congress — no doubt after heavy lobbying by the travel industry — decided to give people as many three-day weekends as possible.  So, in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, Congress dictated that Washington’s Birthday would be celebrated on the third Monday in February, and not on Washington’s actual birthday.  Then, the holiday somehow got broadened to include not just Washington, or even just Washington and Lincoln, but all Presidents through “Presidents’ Day.”  It is such a phony, meaningless holiday that it isn’t even recognized by most businesses.  What does it say about a holiday if most people don’t even get the day off?

George Washington deserves a holiday, and so does Lincoln.  In reality, however, most Presidents don’t.  There have been far more crappy Presidents than good Presidents.  James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore were disastrous Presidents.  They don’t deserve a holiday, they deserve to be forgotten.  The same goes for Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon, among many others.

“Presidents’ Day” is like the modern practice of giving a trophy to every kid on a sports team, no matter whether his team wins or loses or whether the kid is talented or the most uncoordinated soccer player ever to stumble onto a field.  (My God, James Buchanan even looks like the kind of hapless kid whose domineering mother insists that he get some kind of recognition regardless of his complete ineptitude.)  It’s like we are trying to not hurt the self-esteem of the crummy Presidents, so we give them an embarrassing holiday that most of the country ignores.  It’s time to get rid of Presidents’ Day.  Let’s go back to recognizing a President who did make a difference, and actually celebrate his birthday on his real birth date.

Time To Put Down The Pen And Await The Historical Verdict

When Kish and I saw that Jimmy Carter had another book out, we wondered aloud whether he possibly could have anything new to say.  Today I stumbled across this article, which notes that the former President has written 25 books — 25! — and urges him to please, please stop.

The linked article treats the former President as a joke, which is sad.  I think, rather, that President Carter comes across as a desperately needy and therefore somewhat pathetic figure.  His ego seemingly cannot accept that, 30 years ago, he was voted out of office after one term and is generally regarded as a failed President.  Since his defeat, President Carter has worked feverishly to try to stay in the public eye and somehow resurrect his reputation, even if it means churning out dozens of books that no one reads or even cares much about.  Recently he even made the weird, and ultimately pitiful, claim that his work since he left office was somehow “superior” to that of other ex-Presidents.  All of these activities are unfortunately reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s hopeless and doomed campaign to overcome the disgrace of Watergate by writing “serious” books about foreign affairs and foreign leaders.

It would be better for Mr. Carter if he put down his pen, stopped injecting himself into world affairs, and simply accepted that history inevitably will judge him solely on the basis of his presidency.  He can’t change the verdict of future historians.  But by ceasing his hyperactive attempts to do so, President Carter could retain the remaining shreds of his dignity and self-respect, and that counts for something.