Nixon lied, smeared foes but accomplished much

albert hunt

Albert Hunt


Monday, June 25, 2018


It's a good time to think about Richard Nixon's presidency, both the evil in it and the good. President Donald Trump is replicating many of Nixon's worst qualities and almost none of his strengths.

Last Sunday was the 46th anniversary of the late-night break-in by Nixon's men at the Democratic National Committee office in Washington's Watergate complex. The White House lied about it, leading in time to multiple indictments and the appointment of a special prosecutor. The White House fired the prosecutor and was forced to name a successor whom Nixon's aides tried to smear. It all ended with a presidential resignation.

In the same month, Nixon signed Title 9 of the education amendments of 1972, one of the half-dozen most important civil rights measures of the past half-century. It banned discrimination on the basis of sex at federally financed educational institutions, opening the door to the widespread participation of women in college sports. This is reminder that for all his personal and political transgressions, Nixon was a smart, accomplished executive with some first-rate people around him.

The architects of Title 9 were two Democratic Congress members, Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana. The Republican Nixon signed it and enforced it. It meant that an institution that received federal support, as almost all major colleges did, had to spend equally on women's and men's athletics. (There's a huge loophole for men's football, the biggest revenue gobbler by far.)

The impact has been remarkable. At the time, just a handful of women participated in college sports; now 200,000 do. The decline of the fabled Notre Dame football program is softened by the miraculous success of its women's basketball team, the 2018 National Collegiate Athletic Association champ.

In 1972, American women won 23 medals at the summer Olympics, less than a quarter of the U.S. total. In 2016, U.S. women won 62 medals, more than the American men.

Girls today have the opportunity to participate in sports at their schools and communities. Title 9 has been great for the country.

Nixon also created the Environmental Protection Agency as part of one of the most successful government reorganization programs since World War II. His 1974 health-care initiative, more ambitious than Obamacare, didn't succeed, but the liberal lion of the Senate, Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., later said that opposing it was one of the biggest mistakes of his career. In foreign policy, Nixon's opening to China was infinitely more consequential and far more considered than Trump's North Korea foray.

Yes, Nixon and his foreign-policy adviser Henry Kissinger extended the Vietnam War for five years, with 21,000 Americans killed, knowing it was a lost cause.

The crimes Nixon committed — illegally misusing the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service to attack his enemies, and obstructing the investigations of his misdeeds — merited the impeachment he faced before resigning on Aug. 9, 1974.

It's also instructive, however, especially with comparisons being made to Trump, to remember that there was another side to the man. For the sins of Nixon men like Attorney General John Mitchell and White House hatchet man Chuck Colson, there also were men of high caliber in his administration. Think of Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson, Treasury Secretary George Shultz, Treasury Undersecretary Paul Volcker, Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird and James Schlesinger, domestic policy aide Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development George Romney.

And don't forget the heroes of the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy Bill Ruckelshaus, who resigned rather than cooperate in the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox. The contrast with Trumpworld hardly needs elaboration.

During the first year of his presidency, before political paranoia fully set in, Nixon periodically oversaw spirited debates over health care, welfare and economic policy between Arthur Burns, the most eminent conservative economist of that age, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the brilliant economic and social-policy progressive. Moynihan usually won.

Try to imagine Trump tuning in to a comparable debate today.

Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News and a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.


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