Not because of any personal animus towards Richard Nixon--my only personal beef with the President at the time was that Watergate hearings used to interrupt my favorite cartoons in the afternoon. I am of course like many unhappy about its legacies: there is no question that late 20th Century American antipathy towards government and politics finds its deepest and most wounding origins in the career of Richard Nixon and the traumas he visited upon his office and his society. Even Nixon's curiously moderate record has to be stacked up against the kinds of political careers he helped set in motion, more than a few of which have come back to haunt us in the current Administration.
My gratitude has to do with the composite impact of the tape transcripts which continue to be made available: 240 more hours were made available to the public this month. That has obvious specific relevance to scholars working on the Nixon Administration, on the US government in the early 1970s, on the history of the Presidency, and so on. But I think it has a deeper relevance, one that has still gone largely unappreciated.
The tape transcripts, taken as a whole, show us an unintended, relatively unmediated view of the interior culture of political power, something that ordinarily historians know almost nothing about whether we're dealing with ancient or recent cases, Western or non-Western societies. Most of the people who have listened to the tapes released in recent years come away with rather ordinary, even banal, revelations about Nixon's character and worldview, more or less confirming things that we already guessed or knew anyway, that Nixon was an anti-Semite, or disliked Kissinger, or that he hated the Eastern Establishment.
What I think is more useful is to begin to think about Nixon not as the atypical, psychologically curious figure that he undoubtedly was, but also to see him and his conversations with aides and visitors as a revelation of what the typical business of political decision-making and information-gathering may look like in its general outlines. Yes, certainly, there is a Nixonian particularity to the more recent transcripts that have been released--it is hard to imagine Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton having quite the same loopily off-the-cuff, awkwardly polite locker room discussions with aides about Greek homosexuality and the character of political enemies and so on. But what I strongly suspect is quite typical about the transcripts is the decidely non-Olympian, non-omniscent perspective they display. The later, non-Watergate tapes tend to show that while Nixon and his aides knew more than the average citizen or the average pundit or the average Congressman about national and international affairs, and had far more ability to move events and institutions in a direction that he desired--that's what power is, in the end--his knowledge and influence were also finite, sometimes strikingly so. I have argued this before, but it seems to me that the total body of tapes offers a fairly striking rebuke to ideas about historical causality that require power to always do that which it ought to do, and to always have a transparent command of the social and cultural landscape it inhabits. The tapes reveal that there were numerous conspiracies within the Nixon White House--but they also tend to undercut a conspiratorial conception of history.