On January 9, 1913, a future president of the United States was born into a conservative Quaker family in Yorba Linda, California. A few weeks from now, 40 years ago, Richard Milhous Nixon was inaugurated into his second term in office. Having won more electoral votes than any American president in history (to that point) by a still-unprecedented margin of 18 million popular votes, he seemed the herald of a new era of American politics after a generation of New Deal dominance, bitter Civil Rights battles, and lukewarm Democratic wars in Southeast Asia.
Now, of course, President Nixon is largely remembered for ushering in a new era of governmental dysfunction, ill-advised economic meddling, escalating distrust in our public servants, and the so-called “Southern strategy” (which won him a now-incredible 36% of the black vote). But whatever his failings, real and imagined, Richard Nixon contributed much to the American story and the history of the Republican Party, including a two-decade conservative dominance of the White House. In remembering that Nixon swept every state but Massachusetts (and D.C.) en route to a historic re-election, we must note his exceptional political savvy.
On the domestic front, he pushed policies to desegregate Southern schools, limit federal spending, protect the environment, and fight rampant sex discrimination. Before Clinton-Gingrich ended “welfare as we know it,” the Nixon administration proposed work requirements in an ultimately ill-fated endeavor to salve the sting of poverty. Whereas some conservatives today have been wont to, how to put it, reflexively malign the poor and struggling, Nixon knew how to sympathetically appeal to the dignity and plight of the working poor. For this they rewarded him electorally like no other executive besides Reagan, who was similarly gifted in the convoluted art of appealing to a diverse nation.
In foreign policy, President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger artfully sowed the seeds of American victory in the Cold War by taking advantage of the little-noted fact that Communist regimes in the U.S.S.R. and China were not a monolith but antagonists. Through singular perspicacity, Nixon built on a strong record of fighting Communism, foreign and domestic (just ask Alger Hiss), to accomplish nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and the diplomatic opening of China. In winding down the Democrats’ war in Vietnam, he reaffirmed the GOP as the party of peace and responsible use of force — a distinction it would hold until the 21st century. For such achievements, the fallen president would later be (privately) consulted for advice by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who accomplished the final body blows to the fiefdom of the Bolsheviks.
This is not to say Richard Nixon is a model for today’s Republicans. His commitment to conservatism notwithstanding, he was the first president in over a century whose party controlled neither house of Congress. As such, he was obliged to yield to a far more robust coalition of progressivism than we are called to endure today and thus aimed to be a conservative reformer in a New Deal world — not exactly an enviable task. Accordingly, his governing philosophy “was only as conservative as he could be and only as liberal as he had to be.”
Moreover, he had the immensely complex task of governing amidst a radical new consensus on civil rights, which presented a host of challenges in lieu of the clarity and achievements of today. His politically motivated price controls were a bust, his expansion of the welfare state earned legitimate qualms, and Watergate was an incalculable disgrace. But there must be something worth learning from a president who managed in four years to expand his share of national support by greater margins even than did Reagan. It is a testimony to Nixon’s governing success that his unelected, pardon-plagued successor Gerald Ford only barely lost the 1976 election because the Solid South rose again in a final stand against the deep-Republican North.
The lesson of Nixon for conservatives is that we must understand the failures and successes of past Republicans — every bit as much as we must understand today’s progressives — if we are to take back our country from the brink of asphyxiating division, debt, and entitled mediocrity. We are not perfect, nor have been — or will be — our leaders and representatives. But if Woodrow “Segregate the Federal Government for No Reason” Wilson and Jimmy “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embarrass a Superpower” Carter can still get their accolades on the left, we can remember Richard Nixon with a bit of perspective.
Besides, he was still a better president than Obama.
This essay originally appeared at Token Dissonance.
Anthony Rek LeCounte is a Yale-educated conservative. He blogs at Token Dissonance.