The Nixon Memorial
Whatever else you might say about Richard Nixon—and you might say a lot—the man knew how to write a memo. He wrote an untold number in the twenty years between his resignation from the Presidency, forty years ago this week, and his death, on April 22, 1994, at the age of eighty-one. He wrote memos to his successors, to their White House aides, and to his designated political heirs—memos on foreign policy and press strategy, memos of political pre- and post-gameanalysis. He wrote serious-minded memos, ingratiating memos, and incendiary memos. (In the run-up to the 1992 Presidential election, Nixon sent a long and vehement memo to dozens of foreign-policy mandarins, attacking President George Bush’s support for democracy in Russia as “pathetically inadequate.”) He wrote secret memos—as well as nominally secret memos he intended to be leaked, so that he could be caught, time and again, in the act of offering wise counsel to Presidents and all the Presidents’ men.
This, of course, was the point: not merely to influence events but to be seen as influencing them. The flurry of memoranda was part of Nixon’s rolling campaign for redemption and, not least, relevance. The former will always elude Nixon, but he needn’t have worried so much about the latter. Twenty-first-century Republicans (with a touch of self-regard) trace their genealogy to Ronald Reagan, but, if you squint at just about any of them—from “establishment” figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to Tea Party irregulars like Senator Ted Cruz—you will see a strong familial resemblance to Nixon. Nixon’s internationalism is of no interest to them now; his domestic achievements are overlooked (Supplemental Security Income, or S.S.I.) or disowned (the E.P.A.), but today’s Republicans were weaned on Nixon’s sour brand of politics: the politics of resentment. Which makes his influence on the party every bit as profound, in its way, as Reagan’s.
During the 1968 campaign, Kevin Phillips, then a young Nixon aide, said to Garry Wills that “the whole secret of politics” was “knowing who hates who.” There was nothing secret about this, and nothing new; as Wills later observed, Pascal said much the same thing, albeit in impeccable French, in the seventeenth century. Politics has always been an exercise in mutual antagonism. But what was startling about Phillips’s comment was its note of satisfaction, even celebration: 1968 was a banner year for bitter grievance, and Nixon rode a wave of resentment to the White House. Governor George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who ran for President that year as a third-party candidate, wore his resentment more openly than Nixon; Reagan, who posed, for a time, a credible threat to Nixon in the primaries, displayed his more deftly; but it was Nixon who turned it into a winning strategy at the national level.
What Nixon knew in his gut, reinforced by the latest tools of gauging public opinion, was that the white middle class—the “silent majority,” in Nixon’s famous phrase, the “good people” who “paid their taxes and go to church”—had come to feel humiliated by college students, civil-rights activists, anti-war protestors, intellectuals, journalists, and other liberal élites who were said to spurn and mock the traditional values of family, faith, and love of country. James Reston, of the Times, noted the irony: Franklin Roosevelt’s “forgotten men” had gained employment through the New Deal and become, a generation later, Richard Nixon’s “forgotten people.” “They have bought houses and now resent taxes,” Reston observed in September, 1968; they reacted with disgust and rage at the “militant poor whites and blacks” in their midst, as well as “the racial turmoil, the demonstrations in the cities and all the permissiveness of contemporary American life.” Nixon, along with his Vice-Presidential candidate and insult comic, Spiro Agnew, stoked these resentments, attacking the Democratic nominee, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, as indulgent and effeminate.