In the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, the mysterious and manipulative character Kreia says when asked about her past: “What do you wish to hear… That for every good work that I did, I brought equal harm upon the galaxy?”

I find I am reminded of this quote whenever I think of the late President Richard Nixon. If you ask me who my favorite President is, I don’t know the answer.  Lincoln, Adams, Grant, Eisenhower and Truman are among those I’d consider.  But if you ask me who the most interesting President is, I would unhesitatingly say “Nixon”.  He is a complex figure, difficult to categorize.  He is not a hero, but not completely a villain.

If some of my fellow liberals are shocked by my attitude, consider that Noam Chomsky called him “the last liberal President”.  Or that George McGovern, who lost to Nixon the 1972 election, said “With the exception of his inexcusable continuation of the war in Vietnam, Nixon really will get high marks in history.”

You know the so-called “Obamacare” law so much in the news? The one that many a Tea-Partier has called “socialist” and “Marxist” and so on?  Well, Nixon advocated a very similar plan.  Yes, Tea-Partiers, you are in the position of arguing for the prosecution of Richard Nixon as a communist.  That would be tough, because Richard Nixon got his big break arguing for the prosecution of other people as communists.  See what I mean about him being complicated?

Let us deal with the elephant in the room right now: Nixon’s racist and sexist views.  There is no denying it; he held views which to the modern liberal are absolutely horrifying, and would not be allowed in mainstream society.  He was a racist, sexist, anti-semitic jerk, but you know what else? The Nixon administration was far more liberal on Civil Rights than people may remember. Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment that was later to be thwarted by conservative Phyllis Schlafly.

When I read about Nixon it seems, as others have said, like there were two different Nixons.  There was the moderate, in some ways even progressive and liberal President Nixon, and then there was the nationalistic, pessimistic, racist, cruel and divisive Candidate Nixon who campaigned on racial divisions and demonized his opponents as radical decadents bent on destroying America.

I think this is what makes him so fascinating: he was a Jekyll and Hyde kind of a character; which made him dramatically interesting.  If you wanted to make a dark, psychological drama about a President, well… “Nixon’s the One”.

As I’ve written before, the campaigner Nixon undid the New Deal coalition and realigned the voting blocs in a way that persists to this day.  As Rick Perlstein wrote in his brilliant Nixonland: “How does Nixonland end?  It has not ended yet.”

Yet, many of his policies were liberal by today’s standard.  And his personal story is remarkable.  He clawed his way up from being dirt poor.  The last Republican candidate could no more relate to the type of hardship he endured in his youth than he could consider saying he is a Keynesian.

Nixon was never personally popular, and I don’t think he really wanted to be.  He knew it would get votes, so he sort of tried, but he didn’t viscerally want it the way many politicians do.

People in general either hated Nixon or liked his policies.  He was not an intrinsically likeable man. That said, there were some people who were amazingly loyal to him, like Rose Mary Woods and maybe his hagiographer, Monica Crowley. (Read Crowley’s writings about Nixon, and then read Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary for him and you will get nothing like an accurate portrait of the man, but you will discover levels of polarization you didn’t know existed.)

There’s been a lot of writing about Nixon one the occasion of his centennial earlier this week.  It’s not at all like the adulation given President Reagan when his came two years ago.  But in the end, I think Nixon was a far more significant figure.  Whether for good or ill I don’t quite know.

But let me give Nixon himself the last word. From his 1974 Farewell address:

We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever.

Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

And so I say to you on this occasion, as we leave, we leave proud of the people who have stood by us and worked for us and served this country.

We want you to be proud of what you have done. We want you to continue to serve in government, if that is your wish. Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.

Andrew Sullivan muses:

Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy… still poisons our politics. For a very long time, the deep cultural divide in this country was in part managed by the Democratic party. Its alliance of Southern conservatives and Northeastern liberals – perhaps exemplified by the Kennedy-Johnson ticket – gave what we now call parts of red and blue America a joint incentive to work out their differences through a common partisan affiliation. The had a fellowship that facilitated compromise. A less coherent ideological party structure actually created a more coherent political debate. I wonder if civil rights legislation would ever have been achieved without this.

That’s one way to look at it. But as Lyndon Johnson supposedly said at the time, the Civil Rights act was also what ended that coalition. Nixon happened to be in the right place at the right time to benefit from it, but the South was not going to support a Democrat again after that. I’ve talked about this before, but in my view, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” didn’t really change much; it was larger societal changes that destroyed the New Deal coalition.

If you really want to understand American politics, forget the statistics, the regression analyses and all that. You don’t need to know that to understand this. All you need to do is look at a map.

I exaggerate, but only a bit. We have an advantage over, say, European countries in that the U.S. is such a big country, and it has had only two major political parties whose colors may be easily and neatly displayed on a map of our great country. It can look pretty cool. For instance, here is the electoral map of the 1896 election, between our old friend William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley:


Cool, huh? Let’s do another. Fast forward 104 years to the Al Gore vs. George W. Bush election:


That’s interesting. It’s practically the exact opposite, except that there are a few new states. Well, we’d expect a few things to change in 104 years, right? The one commonality between the two elections is that in both instances the Republican won, although in the latter case the Democrat got more votes.

Well, as they sing in the opening number to The Music Man:

Ya can talk all ya wanna, but it’s different than it was!

No, it ain’t, no, it ain’t; but ya gotta know the territory!

So, what made this happen? Did the parties change? Or did where their supporters live change? Or both?

Clearly, this is so a big a gap as to be meaningless. The big issue in the 1896 election was bimetallism. The big issue in the 2000 election was who seemed less likely to have an affair with an intern. There’s no point in making the comparison.

Besides, as we established in part one, a seismic change in American politics occurred sometime in the 1960s. So, the famous one. JFK vs. Richard Nixon:


Well, this one is interesting because there’s a third guy: Senator Harry Byrd, a segregationist Democrat. The Democrats were starting to split over that issue, but they still had no intention of voting for any Republicans. But, Kennedy still carried most of the Southern vote. And as we all know, he won, only to have his Presidency tragically ended.

Then in 1964, LBJ won in a massive landslide, because everyone thought Barry Goldwater was crazy:


But, Goldwater did win the South, voting for him because of his opposition to Civil Rights! So, the South has now gone to the extreme measure of voting for a Republican. Interesting.

LBJ decides not to run. Richard Nixon returns. 1968 is Nixon vs. Vice-President Humphrey. And George Wallace is also in the mix, representing the segregationist Democratic side, as opposed to the Northern liberal Democratic side represented by Humphrey. Here’s how that went:


As we all know, Nixon famously employed a “southern strategy” in this election. That is, he tried to attract those Southerners who were opposed to Civil Rights. What is less famous is that, as you can see, this strategy failed miserably. Wallace—who was a Democrat, except for his opposition to Civil Rights, won most of the Southern states.

Compare how Nixon did in 1968 with how he did in 1960. What states did he flip from blue to red? New Mexico, the Carolinas, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware. The only “Southern” States in that are the Carolinas. And when you factor in that Washington and Maine flipped from red to blue, it’s even less impressive.

There’s a scene in the play A Man for All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More tells Richard: “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… But for Wales!” I like to imagine someone telling Nixon: “It profits a man nothing to give the soul of his party for the whole world… But for the Carolinas!”

As Wikipedia notes “The independent candidacy of George Wallace, former Democratic governor of Alabama, partially negated the Southern strategy”. Yeah, “partially.” Wallace was a Democrat, except, as I said, he was pro-segregation. Southerners had been pro-Democrat for almost a century, and so were quite happy with their policies until the Civil Rights thing happened.

It’s often remarked that it’s a shame American politics has only two parties; that this forces a drastic oversimplification of the nuance of possible political positions. People often wish for a third party to allow for more varied politics. In general, I agree with this sentiment. But in 1968, I really wish there had only been two choices, Nixon and Humphrey, and not just because I despise Wallace’s policies.

The reason for this is that then the Southerners would have really faced a tough choice: between Democrat Humphrey, who belonged to the party they’d been voting for all their lives but who supported Civil Rights, and Republican Nixon who belonged to the party they hated, but who offered some coded hints that he wasn’t altogether for Civil Rights.

It’s true that in ’64 the South had voted for Goldwater. But I bet they knew that he had no chance of actually winning, and thus it was more of a symbolic protest vote against Civil Rights. I wonder if they would have had the nerve to cast their ballots for him if he’d actually had a chance. After all, his free-market, small-government stuff can’t have been completely to the taste of long-time New Deal Democrats.

But because they could vote for Wallace in ‘68, they did, and thus it remains a mystery whether they would have chosen Nixon or Humphrey. In any case, though, what we know for sure is that the South’s favorite candidate was a New Deal Democrat who opposed integration. In other words, they voted to maintain the New Deal coalition pre-1964.

People think that 1968 was a “realigning election”. They’re wrong. The South implicitly stated that they didn’t want realignment, they wanted things to stay like they had been. It was however an obvious prelude to a realigning election, because it made it clear there were irreconcilable differences between Northern and Southern Democrats.

The realignment came in 1972, when Nixon beat George McGovern. Actually, Nixon didn’t just beat McGovern; he crushed him. It was a massive landslide:


Imagine you’re a Republican strategist. (Just for a minute; otherwise you might lose your soul) Which election would you use as the blueprint: 1968 or 1972? In ’68 Nixon won because the Democrats split on Civil Rights. In ’72 he won because he persuaded almost everyone that McGovern was a crazy commie-pinko liberal. “Amnesty, Abortion and Acid,” was the phrase they stuck him with.

There was no Democratic split in ’72, and there was no Southern strategy, either. It was a massive victory for Nixon everywhere you looked.

This is the “realigning election”, because this is the one where the Republicans discovered they could run on social issues and appeal to nationalist sentiments by casting the Democrat as an unpatriotic, radical, cosmopolitan elitist.

This still goes on to the present day. The only thing is that sometimes the Democrat manages to win anyway by (a)pretty much going along with Republican economic policies and (b)being more charismatic than the Republican candidate. This strategy was pioneered by Bill Clinton and copied to a large extent by Barack Obama. (Carter, the other Democratic President post-Nixon, simply got in because of anger over the Watergate scandal.)

From 1972 onward, Republicans have known that the key to winning is to turn the nationalists against the cosmopolitan Democrats. As I have said before, this ensures continual Republican viability and forces the Democrats to capitulate time and again on economic issues for the sake of social issues.

Now, as I always feel compelled to say, I’m not an expert in these things; just an amateur. I have pretty firm feelings about this, but I still feel like I ought to make it clear I’m not a professional political scientist.

Recommended reading

Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm and Nixonland. (Both are excellent reads, and have influenced my thinking on politics tremendously.)

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Via Chris Bodenner of The Dish, an article about the wisdom of Richard Nixon. This quote from him is amazing:

“I think of what happened to Greece and Rome, and you see what is left — only the pillars… What has happened, of course, is that the great civilizations of the past, as they have become wealthy, as they have lost their will to live, to improve, they then have become subject to decadence that eventually destroys the civilization. The U.S. is now reaching that period.” 

How interesting. Especially curious to me is that Nixon said that in 1971, and almost exactly nine years later, Ronald Reagan, in his acceptance speech, said:

“The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership –in the White House and in Congress — for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us. They tell us they have done the most that humanly could be done. They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities.

My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.” 

Kind of a major shift, no?

If you don’t post for a few days, way fewer people come to your blog.

Good to know. Real blogging will start up again tomorrow, but for now I thought I’d share this quote I came across while researching some stuff:

“The greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes; because only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain…”–Richard Nixon.

I know the concept of “motivational quotes from Richard Nixon” might seem weird, but I thought it was rather an interesting sentiment.

While running for President in 1968, Richard Nixon appeared on the show Laugh-In, a popular comedy show among young peopleThe results you may see above, with Nixon uttering one of show’s catchphrases.

Nixon’s opponent, Hubert Humphrey, declined an invitation to appear on Laugh-In, reasoning that it was much too undignified for a Presidential candidate to be on a low comedy show.

Lately, some political observers, such as Karl Rove, have claimed that the fact that Sarah Palin is now hosting/starring in a reality TV show suggests she is not a serious candidate for President. Jonathan Weiler at Huffington Post argues that Palin knows this, and doesn’t want to run for President, at least not in 2012, but instead wants to be an entertainment TV star. Perhaps this is so… but then again, what if it is a Nixon-on-Laugh-In type of strategy?

Now, there are at least two potential counter-arguments to this. The first is that there is a difference between appearing for four seconds to say a catchphrase and being the star of a reality show. The second is that Nixon’s Laugh-In appearance was–or at least could have been–beneficial because he was perceived as a dull, uptight man, too absorbed in policy to have personality. This is precisely the opposite of Palin’s problem.

The first objection neglects the change in the times–a four second appearance on a comedy show was roughly as shocking in 1968 as a Reality TV show appearance is today. The second objection is a fair one, and may be proven accurate with regard to Palin’s Presidential chances.

However, while thinking about this issue, I saw this exchange from the CNN show “Parker Spitzer”. You can watch the whole thing here, but I only want to point out this relevant quote from rabid Palin supporter John Ziegler, responding to a question about which media sources he thinks were responsible for what he considers the unfair character assassination of Palin:

“Actually, I believe it’s the entertainment shows, the comedy shows, that have way more influence. We saw that with the targeting, the destruction, the assassination of Sarah Palin in 2008. Who destroyed her? Tina Fey destroyed her, more than anybody else did.”  

As far as I know, Ziegler is not an adviser of any sort to Palin. But he is a supporter, and he has interviewed her, and has made a film that is highly sympathetic to her, and therefore it is not a stretch to suppose that his thinking reflects the thinking of the Palin camp generally.

And if Palin and her supporters believe her to have been unfairly attacked and slandered by the entertainment media, it would make perfect sense to try to inject a decidedly pro-Palin strain into that same entertainment media. Hence the reality show. (as well as her daughter’s appearance on the apparently popular “Dancing with the Stars”.)

Of course, this is all merely my observations of what may or may not be Palin’s strategy. I have no way of knowing if this is the idea; and anyway I am not even sure if it could work. No one really knows if Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In helped him, though Humphrey thought it did. Certainly, I know that I do not base my voting decisions on what I see on entertainment and comedy shows. I assume that most other people don’t either.

This past September 26 was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Kennedy/Nixon debate in the 1960 Presidential Campaign. It is famous for being the first televised Presidential debate, and subsequently as an example of the influence television could have on a campaign.

Everyone knows the story: Nixon looked haggard and ill, Kennedy looked fit and healthy. Some say that Kennedy’s appearance in that debate was what won him the election. I feel that is only partially true–what helped Kennedy here was not just his good looks, but mainly his charisma, which was now being shown to a wider audience than in any previous election.

In fact, to me, this debate marks the moment when, because of television, charisma emerged as the most powerful force in U.S. politics. Nixon represented what Max Weber called “Legal Domination“, whereas Kennedy represented “Charismatic Domination“. My view is that Kennedy’s victory demonstrated that television had now enabled charismatic domination to come to the fore.

The real question, I guess, is: was this a good thing or a bad thing?

Quoted in Der Spiegel, the German business daily Handelsblatt says of the Tea Party:

 In the US…  ‘Right-wing’ represents Reagan, religion, the free market, individualism, patriotism and small government. In reality, it is an impossible mixture: National pride, God and tradition are conservative ‘us’ values. The profit motive, competition and a weak state are ‘me-first’ sentiments .

Quite right. This is the major fault line that runs through the Republican party, and has ever since Nixon.

If the Tea Party does gain much power, I expect quite a struggle between these two groups.

“Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth?’…”–John 18:38 

Most people probably believe that of the two major political parties in the United States, it is the Democrats who are more prone to relativism. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that there are more intellectuals, who are always given over to questioning traditions, in the Democratic party. The second is that many years of conservative propaganda has told everyone so.

Most of this is the work of the religious Right, though the Atheist philosophy of Ayn Rand also rejects the idea of anything other than absolute Truth, and it is certainly more widely heard in “conservative”,or–if we must use the term–“right-wing” circles. And there is some truth to all this; after all, does not the word “Conservative” itself suggest a certain intellectual and philosophical rigidity?

But, of late, there have been signs of a creeping relativism among conservatives. For example, this column from paleo-conservative writer Patrick J. Buchanan. An excerpt:

““Naked reason,” pure rationalism… ignores that vast realm of sentiments, such as patriotism and love, that reside in the terrain between thought and feeling.” 

Buchanan, admittedly, is far from one of the major players in the Republican party, having been effectively ostracized years ago. But there is altogether something very “post-modern”, as Andrew Sullivan often says, about the behavior of the conservatives of late. Recall the odd incident early this year when Rudy Giuliani and other prominent conservatives appeared to have forgotten about the 9/11 attacks.

(As Henry Leland says to Mike Thorton in Alpha Protocol: “There are only so many coincidences that can happen before they stop being coincidences.”)

Of course, one could easily explain away such things by pointing out that it is merely the inevitable result of competing–nearly warring–political parties. A strategy, nothing more. Indeed, I suspect a credible case could be made that changes in the media and the education system have produced a general increase in the relativistic outlook, and we only notice it with conservatives because they are, historically, less susceptible to it.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that strategically speaking, the Republicans are moving more and more towards a relativistic approach to reporting and analyzing every issue. Much of their criticism of Obama is based on how he makes them feel, or the image he projects.

Perhaps Lee Atwater had some part in it. (On some sites, I have seen the phrase “Perception is reality” attributed to Atwater. I doubt he originated it, but it does encapsulate his worldview.) Still, from at least Edward Bernays onward, propagandists, strategists and ad men, or whatever name, must have at least a touch of relativism to carry out their duty.

Now, I cannot stress enough that it is mostly the conservative intellectuals and strategists who seem to think this way. All the examples I gave, with the partial exception of Giuliani, were very much the behind-the-scenes tactician sort, not the leaders, and not the rank and file. I don’t think we will ever see Sarah Palin, for example, engaging in anything other than black-and-white moral reasoning. (“We win, they lose…”)

That’s part of what’s so odd about it, in fact. On the one hand we have the traditional non-relativist view of the world characterized by most of the Republican politicians, but pull away the curtain and we find men like Karl Rove–heir to Atwater–and other such strategists. Buchanan, let us not forget, was a strategist for Richard M. Nixon. (Nixon, by the way, was interested in the works of Nietzsche.) Even Dick Cheney, in his role as an adviser to Gerald Ford, famously said: “Principle is OK up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”

It is pointless to counter by saying that the same is true of Democrats. Of course it is. Carville, Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and the rest are all doubtless cut from the same cloth. But the Democrats as a whole are already supposed to be the party of relativists, to hear the Republicans tell it, and they’re kind of correct. Nothing reveals this more than the fact that Democrats in general will tend to attack Republicans for being too absolutist. Whereas, the Republicans pride themselves on seeing through the moral haziness in which the liberal intellectuals lose themselves by understanding the absolute, God-given differences between True and False, Right and Wrong.

Let me, as Obama would say, be clear:  the majority of the Republican party believes in a rigid, absolutist, traditional Christian morality–or wants to, anyway.  But many of their strategists are willing to do almost anything to achieve victory, and are more than happy to bend the truth in order to get what they want. And they are fairly open about it.

In short, their strategists appear to be using moral and factual relativism in order to justify the rank-and-file and their leaders behaving like moral and factual absolutists.

All comments are welcome, and disagreement is encouraged. 

“…[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.”–Max Weber on Charisma.

“The cult of personality surrounding George W. Bush was abominable. It might have been even worse than the one engendered by Barack Obama. The United States has suffered three consecutive administrations of Presidents with severe narcissistic disorders: God knows we don’t need another.”–Christopher Knight, proprietor of The Knight Shift, recounting the recent history of U.S. elections.

A cult of personality must have at its center a person of extremely high charisma. Indeed, it is one of the defining aspects of charisma itself that it engenders this cult-like behavior in those surrounding the charismatic person.

As I have tried to establish on this blog, charisma is also key to winning elections in the United States in modern times, just as Paul Graham observed in his excellent essay. This being the case, however, it is all too likely that cults of personality will continue to form around Presidential candidates. Indeed, in this day and age, it’s almost a prerequisite.

I think Matt Taibbi was on to something in his bleak, cynical profanity-ridden tirade “Mad Dog Palin” when he wrote:

“…huge chunks of American voters no longer even demand that their candidates actually have policy positions; they simply consume them as media entertainment, rooting for or against them according to the reflexive prejudices of their demographic, as they would for reality-show contestants or sitcom characters.”

It is fitting that Taibbi used the analogy of television shows. Back before radio, and especially television, charisma’s impact on elections was considerably less than it is today. But nowadays, a less capable individual with charisma will get noticed and adored, while a more capable, non-charismatic individual will be passed over. History seems to have decided that the great turning point was the Presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy’s charisma, they say, won over the television audience, and provided him with the edge he needed to win a close election.

Of course, charisma was a factor long before modern technologies enhanced the distribution of it. But, in times past, it was used to greatest effect mostly by prominent military leaders. Caesar and Napoleon achieved power through instilling fierce loyalty in the men under their command, and using their military force to gain power.

But now, mass communication makes it much easier to “transmit” the charisma, and so, in the developed world at least, military coups have been replaced with charismatic leaders who sell themselves as appealing individuals to the populace at large. Hence, the television analogies.In some ways, then, it is not humans who have changed but rather our technology that has facilitated the charismatic domination by these individuals. And, in its way, it is better that it should be so; after all, is not the endless conflict of these cults at least now being fought with votes instead of swords, guns and bombs?

All the same, it seems that Democracy is now reliant upon endless personality cults to sustain itself. I do not know if the current and past two Presidents really did have “severe narcissistic disorders”, as Knight believes, but to a large extent that is irrelevant. They must behave as leaders of a cult to maintain their power. In the end, they must use the worshipful tendencies of their ardent supporters, whether they want to or not, in order to achieve their goals.

This is, I feel, a dangerous situation. The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.

What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time. Therefore, rooting for the most appealing personality, as Taibbi says, is the only way most people can hope to participate in the political system at all.

So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.