John Fund: Nixon at 100: Was He ‘America’s Last Liberal’?

John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.

January 9 marked what would have been Richard Nixon’s 100th birthday and reignited an old debate among conservatives. Some view him as an underappreciated statesman who is a victim of a liberal double standard. Conrad Black proclaimed in a 2011piece on NRO that Nixon was “halfway to Mount Rushmore.” I have a more negative take: I believe that Richard Nixon governed more as a liberal than anything else, and that the Watergate scandal set back the cause of conservatism. From our failure to control runaway spending to restrictions on campaign finance, we are still dealing with the repercussions of his mistakes.

There is clear evidence that Nixon didn’t really like or trust conservatives, even if he hired a bunch of them. Rather, he used them and freely abandoned their principles when convenient. In a 1983 interview, he told historian Joan Hoff that his many liberal initiatives as president (from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to his calls for universal health insurance) reflected his own background and association with the “progressive” wing of the Republican party.

In private, Nixon was scathing about conservatives ranging from Ronald Reagan (he considered him a showy “know-nothing”) to William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review. John C. Whitaker, a top Nixon aide, wrote in Presidential Studies Quarterly that he sat with Nixon on a plane the day after Buckley lost the 1965 race for mayor of New York to liberal Republican John Lindsay....

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