Magazine article The Christian Century

What Nixon Knew; the Last 'New Nixon?' (Richard M. Nixon)(includes Related Article on Nixon's Refusal to Ask for a Recount of Votes in 1960) (Column)

Magazine article The Christian Century

What Nixon Knew; the Last 'New Nixon?' (Richard M. Nixon)(includes Related Article on Nixon's Refusal to Ask for a Recount of Votes in 1960) (Column)

Article excerpt

RICHARD NIXON'S critics mocked him for his repeated creation of a "new Nixon." But the last new Nixon cannot be attributed to what has been called his trickiness. The last Nixon comes not with his change but with ours.

This latest Nixon reflects what has happened to America spiritually in the 26 years since he was elected president. In 1968 on a campaign plane historian Garry Wills asked a pensive Nixon why he was running. Nixon answered, "There is an awful mood abroad--a desire to just blow everything up. There must be a new vision of America's role if we are to shake ourselves out of this nihilism."

Of course, he ran also because he found it impossible to resist a winnable contest. Nevertheless, Nixon's comment is indicative of a larger point: he was sensitive to the spiritual culture of the nation. He had a sensitivity here, not a scholarly aptitude; and it was directed toward the spiritual climate, not toward the social climate--filled though it was with a discord unmatched since the Civil War. For some unfathomable reason Nixon felt violently wronged; as a consequence, he was strangely fitted to discern the outrage felt by others. He knew personal darkness, and thus could feel it in a whole culture.

A generation later, Cornel West in Race Matters and Zbigniew Brzezinski in Out of Control, among others, have traced social failure to spiritual collapse, albeit for different reasons. And in Memphis last November Bill Clinton tied lawlessness and the breakdown of community and family to a "great crisis of the spirit that is gripping America today." We have changed enough to be able to interpret Nixon by reference to an ongoing national despair, which he for his own reasons knew and described years ago.

In the light of this interpretation, Nixon's plan to establish peace in Vietnam "with honor" gains new significance. His opponents saw "peace with honor" as just another outcropping of a silly, if not contemptible, nationalism. As a part of the Wisconsin antiwar delegation at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and as a local chairperson for George McGovern in 1972, I knew that American national self-respect, if it had any value at all, was certainly not fragile and could easily survive a quick withdrawal from a mistaken war.

But those who voted for Nixon apparently knew no such thing. For them, for certain Democrats and for the conservative movement that was to swell over the next two decades, national as well as personal self-respect was not only fragile but imperiled, Jimmy Carter seemed to believe this when he gave his famous "malaise" speech in 1979. Ronald Reagan feared that Americans were losing the capacity to believe in themselves, and this led him first to attack Carter's pessimism as part of the problem and then to adopt the hyperbole of "morning in America." National self-respect may not have been the trivial matter Nixon's critics thought it was.

While Nixon's critics sought to perfect the democracy whose survival they could assume, much of the rest of the nation was wondering whether it could survive at all. In their preoccupation with economic, political and social reform, his critics may not have been particularly sensitive to the nation's spiritual culture, nor would they have believed that Nixon, by whatever means, was capable of reading that culture. Of course, from time to time the critics had been told, even by the man himself, that Nixon was an introvert in the back-slapping, hyperpolitical world of extroverts. To any other introvert they would have listened, particularly if they knew he or she had read the culture well enough to accomplish repeatedly what the experts said could not be accomplished.

In his book on Nixon, One of us, Tom Wicker notes that Americans as early as 1960 were not particularly confident. For Wicker, the real task of interpreting the 1960 presidential election is not to explain how Kennedy won but how Nixon--campaigning in a still heavily Democratic nation, thrown in the hospital for two weeks at the height of the campaign, undermined by a popular president of his own party, running against the most charismatic candidate in decades--came within one-tenth of one percentage point of winning. …

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