Forty years ago today, and far too late, Richard Milhous Nixon resigned from the presidency of the United States. He became the first president to do so, and he did so because House Republican leaders had come to tell him that articles of impeachment were likely to be approved by the House. Even then, Nixon worked the angles: If he were convicted and impeached, he’d lose all his tax-paid federal benefits. If he resigned, he could spend the rest of his life on the taxpayer’s tit. So he resigned.
It is tempting for people who weren’t there, which is a majority of the country, and for people who were there but are dishonest, to say that Nixon wasn’t that bad, especially in comparison with who came later. That argument is wrong on its face — Nixon was stone evil, driven by resentment and paranoia to become America’s most thug-like president. Yeah, some nice domestic things like the EPA happened on his watch, but he himself had never given a rat’s ass about domestic policy. He basically told aides handling domestic policy to do as they liked as long as it didn’t hurt him politically, and unlike today, people were still ready, willing, and able to vote against polluters.
That argument also is wrong in that it is difficult to imagine the evil that would come after Nixon having happened had Nixon himself not happened. Had Humphrey taken him (and it was very close, remember), or, dear God, if Robert Kennedy had lived to claim the Democratic nomination (he’d have destroyed Nixon in the general), a whole different group of people with a very different mindset would have been in government then, both in leadership positions at the time or in junior positions that would have qualified them for leadership positions in subsequent administrations.
The Vietnam War would have ended much more quickly and there would have been no Ford pardon of Nixon — two things that hugely increased bipartisan cynicism and distrust of government. The Southern Strategy might have worked in the South, but not so much anywhere else. Reagan is inconceivable as a politician without Nixon, and Jesse Helms, with all the evil appertaining unto him, is almost as unimaginable. And Reagan’s minions foisted the Bush dynasty, with all its corruption and lies and crimes, upon us as well.
Still, Nixon was quite as evil in his own right as anyone who has come before or since. He was a racist, an anti-Semite, a proto-fascist (and quite willing to help real fascists, as with Pinochet in Chile, even at the cost of thousands of innocent lives).
And he didn’t engage in all this evil in service of some larger issue, however infernal. No, Richard Nixon did what he did for Richard Nixon and for Richard Nixon alone.
I’ve said it before here, but it bears repeating: It is impossible to understand Nixon in both the breadth of his complexity and the depth of his immorality without having read Hunter S. Thompson’s writings on Nixon. The worst in Nixon brought out the best in Thompson, a writer I love but who, even I must admit, was capable of inconsistent performance on other subjects. Here is Thompson’s piece on the occasion of Nixon’s death 20 years ago, which still gleams like a newly cut and polished diamond. But an arguably better Thompson epitaph appeared in Rolling Stone just weeks before before Nixon’s re-election and almost two years before Nixon would be driven in disgrace from Washington:
If the current polls are reliable … Nixon will be re-elected by a huge majority of Americans who feel he is not only more honest and more trustworthy than George McGovern, but also more likely to end the war in Vietnam. The polls also indicate that Nixon will get a comfortable majority of the Youth Vote. And that he might carry all fifty states … This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable. The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes … understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose … Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?
Thompson’s question was rhetorical, but we have gotten real-life answers, consistently bad and consistently worsening, in the 40 years since Nixon’s resignation. That evil, too, must be laid at his putrid, cloven feet.