Nixon's Shadow Is Inescapable at the Republican Convention





James Rosen, in the NYT (Aug. 28, 2004):

"I am a product of the Nixon era," President Bush told a small audience of journalists shortly after his inauguration. Yet when Mr. Bush accepts his party's nomination in New York next week, his listeners are not likely to hear many references to Richard Nixon, his father's political mentor and the modern-day chief executive many observers see as the president he most strongly resembles - in his relish for partisan combat, his occasional deviations from conservative dogma, and in the irrational hatred he engenders in liberals.

Instead, conventioneers will bathe anew in the glow of the man Nixon soundly defeated in an all-out battle for the soul of the Republican Party in Miami Beach in the summer of 1968: Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In the outpouring of emotion and nostalgia that greeted President Reagan's death, Nixon's rebuff of the Reagan revolt received little attention, and for good reason: it didn't fit the storyline. Beyond an aversion to speaking ill of the dead, who wanted to remember that when Republicans enjoyed a straight-up choice between Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, they chose Nixon?

While such convenient lapses of memory are understandable they are also unfortunate. As the man who shaped the party's postwar foreign policy, Richard Nixon commands our attention now more than ever.

Eulogists at the Reagan funeral called his presidency as the turning point of the 20th century. In this, Reagan's worshipers have been aided greatly by the collapse of the Soviet Union two years after the Gipper left office. Around this welcome event they have constructed a mythology suggesting that our 40th president was singularly responsible for it.

Typical are the sentiments of John Lehman, Reagan's secretary of the Navy, who told me at the commissioning of the aircraft carrier Reagan in 2001 that neither Nixon nor Lyndon B. Johnson "had any concept that they could actually win the Cold War." Ronald Reagan, he said, believed that by asserting America's "moral superiority, backed up by a reassertion of strength," he could "bring about the diplomatic collapse of the Soviet Union." Damned in their times as cold war butchers, Johnson and Nixon are now cast as appeasers, misguided pursuers, in Mr. Lehman's words, of the "policies of détente ... measures of restraint."

But did Reagan mark such a decisive change in Cold War thinking? It wasn't so so apparent in 1987, when he negotiated and signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. That accord, on which Reagan staked his foreign policy record, hardly signified a radical departure from the Nixon-Kissinger model of statecraft.

Nor was Reagan the first chief executive to envision the post-Soviet world. That was Nixon, whose plan to hasten the Soviet Union's irrelevance, by shrewdly exploiting the Sino-Soviet split, took shape as early as 1967. The relative sophistication of the two leaders emerges clearly in their recorded telephone conversation of Oct. 26, 1971 (available at the National Archives, the tape's contents are previously unpublished). Reagan, then governor of California, called the president following the United Nations' vote to expel Taiwan and recognize only communist China. Nixon, mindful of Reagan's status with conservatives, began by reassuring the governor that "we worked our tails off" to forestall the "bad vote." Then Reagan pitched an idea, which involved the American ambassador to the United Nations, George H.W. Bush.

REAGAN: I know it is not easy to give a suggestion, or advice to the president of the United States. But I just feel that - I feel so strongly that we can't just sit and take this and continue as if nothing has happened. And I had a suggestion for an action that I'd like to be so presumptuous as to, to suggest. My every instinct says get the hell out of that -

NIXON: [Laughs]

REAGAN: - kangaroo court, and let it, uh -

NIXON: Yeah.

REAGAN: - sink. But I know that's very, that would be extremely difficult, and not the thing to do. But it has occurred to me that ... if you brought Mr. Bush back to Washington, to let them sweat for about 24 hours, as to what you were thinking of, and then if you went on television to the people of the United States and said that Mr. Bush was going back to the U.N., to participate in debate and express our views and so forth, but he would not participate in any votes - that the United States would not vote and would not be bound by the votes of the U.N., because it is a debating society. You don't have to say that, but it is a debating society -

NIXON: Mm-hmm.

REAGAN: - and, and so we'd be there, our presence would be there. But we would just not participate in their votes. I think it would put those bums in the perspective they belong.

NIXON: [after a pause, breaks into laughter] It sure would!

REAGAN: I think it would make a hell of a campaign issue.

At that point, drawing on the decades of foreign policy experience his caller lacked, Nixon paused again, and tried to explain - gently - both the "legal problems" involved and the interconnectedness of global issues.

"It's a tough one, as you're well aware,'' Nixon then said. "It's - we've got some, we've got some fish to fry on India-Pakistan. We're trying to avoid a war there, and the U.N. may have to play some damn role there. Uh, the - [laughs] 'cause we don't want to get involved, obviously, in that miserable place. It's, it's ah we will, let me, let me give some thought to this whole thing."

Reagan pressed on, either unaware or unconcerned that his idea had flopped. "I think it would be very dramatic," he said. "Here's a chance for Uncle Sam just to slap their wrist!"

Nixon promised to consider recalling Ambassador Bush, then wrapped up the call with talk about his recent Supreme Court appointees (William Rehnquist, then 47, would become "the strongest man on the court," Nixon predicted). Nixon's patience had apparently run out.


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