The fortieth anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency last week passed without much attention to the question of the former president’s historical significance and his role in the history of the modern Republican party. Twenty years after his death, it is apparent that Nixon shaped the political world in which we now live, and the last fifty years of the twentieth century are properly seen as The Age of Nixon. In race relations and the fundamental beliefs of the modern Republican party, Nixon was a more consequential historical figure than Ronald Reagan.
In the 1950s, Nixon was sympathetic to African-American aspirations and was someone who impressed Martin Luther King with his understanding of the civil rights impulse. The 1960 election changed all that as black voters helped put John Kennedy in the White House. Convinced that the election had been stolen from him, Nixon said of African-American support of Democrats, “it’s a bought vote and it isn’t bought by civil rights.” From there, even though his administration enforced civil rights laws, it was a short step to the Southern Strategy that turned the states of the Confederacy from Democratic to Republican over the next three decades. Nixon, through aides like Pat Buchanan, reinforced the Republican commitment to white voters that underpins so much of the Republican opposition to President Obama.
As Nixon told a friend after the 1960 election, “we won, but they stole it from us.” Contrary to the portrait of patriotic self-denial and deference to the election of John F. Kennedy that Nixon later proffered, he and the Republicans were quite prepared to contest Kennedy’s success until they knew there was no case that would withstand scrutiny. Yet the lesson that Nixon took away from 1960 was not that politics was like war, in which victory justifies all.
In that insight lay the roots of Watergate. Presidents could not, in Nixon’s mind commit illegal acts. Faced with a Democratic Party whose tactics impaired its dubious legitimacy, the Republicans should stop at nothing to achieve and maintain power. Entering the White House in January 1969, Nixon saw himself surrounded by enemies bent on his political annihilation. It was only right in such a dangerous political environment to meet fire with fire, criminality with criminality, dirty tricks with similar tactics.
The Watergate generation saw in Nixon’s methods violations of the Constitution that led to his resignation. But in time the assumption grew among Republicans that Nixon had been right all along. Nixon might believe that Democrats had more fun than Republicans did, and for a time he toyed with the idea of a new political party. In that he emulated Dwight D. Eisenhower and Modern Republicanism. Yet in his heart of hearts Nixon believed that the Democrats were the Other in American politics, a criminal enterprise that abused the rules of partisan behavior for selfish ends. They did not deserve fair play, which was only for suckers in public life.
The lesson stuck. Watergate had not been a moment of constitutional truth. Impeachment was a tactic that Republicans could deploy, first against Bill Clinton, and now against President Obama. Nixon taught that only Republicans had a true commitment to American values and therefore the only viable and defensive claim on fundamental legitimacy in American life. In the universe of Richard Nixon, only the winning side had the luxury of moral values. Commitment to democratic practices was only a sham that the true political sophisticates adhered to only at their peril. His disciples abound. They restrict voting of minorities, they filibuster everything, they gerrymander with abandon, they deny medical care even though people die as a result.
Nixon famously invoked a sign he had seen while campaigning, “Bring us together,” it read. It made for good rhetoric, but in his career he was the architect of two policies that are still tearing the country apart. His belief that politics is actually war demands perpetual battle with unconditional surrender as the only sensible goal at hand, whereas his fealty to the southern strategy, which dictates the exclusion of fast-growing minorities, questions the very survivability of his own party. These are the dilemmas that the United States now contemplates as it ponders the legacy of Richard Milhous Nixon.