Nixon without Watergate? It’s like Beethoven without music or “The Godfather” without violence.
On the 40th anniversary this weekend of the resignation of the 37th U.S. president, his illegal activities dominate. Yet there was a lot more to the five and half years of Richard Nixon’s presidency. That record, ironically, is largely painful for the conservatives who supported him for a quarter century, and not a bad one for the liberals who despised him.
Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 had been advocated by many liberals, but Democratic presidents weren’t willing to take the political risk. Today, it is considered one of the great foreign-policy successes of the past half century. Nixon also presided over a policy of “detente” with the former Soviet Union, negotiating arms pacts and resisting the more confrontational approach of hard-liners.
Vietnam is a black mark. He continued the war, started by Democrats. More than 21,000 Americans died in Vietnam in the Nixon years.
Domestically, the picture was mixed, but again there is some cheer for liberals. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and tapped the exceptionally able William Ruckelshaus to run it. This was one of the few large government reorganizations that really worked. He was out front on consumer issues. He proposed a national health care plan, with federal subsidies; the late Ted Kennedy later expressed regret that he and other Democrats didn’t get behind this at the time. Nixon also proposed a negative income tax for poor people, expanded food stamps and enacted supplemental security income for those with disabilities and the elderly.
On civil rights, the good and bad Nixons both emerged. The “Southern Strategy” to gain support in the formerly Democratic region was, in part, a pander to racial animosities. Yet he also was one of the fathers of government-initiated affirmative action.
The most radical, if often forgotten, Nixon policy was a disaster. With an eye to his re-election, in August 1971 he imposed wage and price controls on the economy. They provided a short-term bonus for him, but contributed to an inflation bubble when they came off several years later. (A delicious piece of trivia: Two of the top administrators of Nixon’s big-government wage and price controls were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.)
That summer, I was a kid reporter covering economics and had my own exposure, without fully realizing it, to the White House Watergate mind-set. The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Arthur Burns, was worried about creeping inflation and publicly called on the White House to pressure companies and unions to moderate price and wage increases.
This annoyed the White House, and an aide to Nixon’s henchman Charles Colson summoned me, promising a big scoop. On background from “White House sources,” he said Nixon was so offended by Burns that he was considering increasing the size of the Federal Reserve Board — in essence, court-packing — and insisted that Burns was a hypocrite because he was privately lobbying for a pay increase for himself.
Under the guidance of an editor, we reshaped a story as a war of nerves between the White House and the Fed. The Burns pay raise tip turned out to be bogus.
Only weeks later, Nixon went way beyond anything Burns had suggested and imposed controls on most American wages and prices.