One of my great satisfactions in life occurs once or twice a year when I get to lecture on Richard Nixon; on those days, I remember what Christmas was like before I stopped believing in Santa Claus. For what I’m sure are complicated reasons, I find it immensely cathartic to spend several hours (as I did tonight) reliving the uninterrupted horror of those years. Almost none of my students were alive while he was in office, and few of them even remember when he died in 1994. When I explain that Richard Nixon is at the top of my list of presidents I’d like to engage in a drunken fistfight, they just think it’s weird that I possess such a list. As far as they’re concerned, I might as well throw down with Calvin Coolidge or Franklin Pierce.
By way of distinguishing between Nixon and your garden-variety chief executive, I try to explain that in his moment, Nixon was the closest approximation to a natural disaster that American political history had ever seen. He employed burglars and thugs who spoke casually about murdering journalists and bombing the Brookings Institute. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney worked for him, for god’s sake, and they were merely shapeless wads of goo compared with mature psychopaths like Liddy and Colson and Hunt and the rest. Toads like Ben Stein conceived speeches for him during those last drunken months. By the time his career ended, it was as if the nation’s brain had been infested by parasites or poisoned by arsenic; and forty years after his election, we’re still cramped up, delirious and vomiting and scratching our skin raw because of what he managed to do in less than six years. And the fact that we got a couple of fucking pandas out of the bargain does not, in my view, set things right.
Every time I teach Nixon, something new stands out as the essence of Dick. Some years, it might his obsession with the film Patton, which he watched over and over, like a teenager with a reel of bootlegged porn, while deciding to invade Cambodia. Last year, I yammered on and on about his efforts to micromanage the planning details for social events at the White House — obsessing for hours over napkin styles and hors d’oeuvres selections, all of which Alexander Butterfield described in jaw-slackening detail during his Watergate testimony. Tonight, it was simple — a brief moment at the beginning of Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech in November 1969. I’ve played this address in class many times, but we’re always drawn the last and most famous section, when he introduces his audience to his Imaginary Friend — the “silent majority” itself — and explains, ever so gently, that dirty hippies are not going to shape his policy. For my money, at least, it represents the most brilliant and insincere five minutes in Nixon’s entire presidency.
As compelling as those moments are, however, I can honestly say I’d never noticed this fantastic declaration that lands mere seconds into the event.
I believe that one of the reasons for the deep division about Vietnam is that many Americans have lost confidence in what their Government has told them about our policy. The American people cannot and should not be asked to support a policy which involves the overriding issues of war and peace unless they know the truth about that policy.
What follows, of course, is a mass of lies — a stream of methane vapor twenty minutes long that has, of late, wafted anew every time Bush, McCain, Lieberman or anyone else reminds us of America’s noble intentions in Iraq or warns the nation against a “precipitate withdrawal” from a war they pretend we can still win.
It’s not quite as theatrical as Nixon’s later claim not to be a crook, and it lacks the rhetorical thrill of a presidential candidate promising to be a uniter rather than a divider, but I think the essence of Nixon is visible in those two sentences.