Excerpt: Elizabeth Drew’s ‘Washington Journal’

The Sagehood Plot

Nixon’s preoccupation, even obsession, after being forced from office was to redeem his reputation, to become a respected figure, to raise himself up from his disgraced state, according to the Wizard plan. He wanted to become someone people listened to—a senior statesman, a sage. And the best way to be considered a sage, Nixon understood, was to establish one’s credentials as an expert in foreign policy, a man known to world leaders. Domestic policy didn’t cut it the same way: lectures and articles on education or the environment didn’t attract the Brahmins and the business leaders Nixon wanted to attract, didn’t occupy nearly as much space on the stage. No splashy trips. Nixon hadn’t been much interested in domestic policy. Various descriptions have been offered of Nixon’s domestic philosophy, but essentially there wasn’t one: he was a pragmatist—he moved left and right as the situation suited him. His approval of relatively moderate bills on domestic policies— certainly by the later standards of the Republican Party—were for the most part responses to initiatives by leading Democratic senators.

This was particularly true of the environmental policies he signed onto: the environmental movement took hold during his presidency, and Nixon wasn’t going to get isolated on the matter. And so the role of the federal government in regulating the environment grew considerably under Nixon— though in conversations with aides he referred to environmentalism as “crap for clowns.” Ehrlichman later wrote of his own frustration with the difficulty of getting the president’s attention to domestic issues and his efforts to keep Nixon from veering further to the right, as other aides urged.

The radical family assistance plan Nixon proposed—to replace welfare payments with cash assistance—was foisted on him by then-urban affairs adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who convinced Nixon that he could be Disraeli, a conservative who backed proposals that liberals could support. For a brief while, the grand notion of the family assistance plan, plus emulating a great statesman, appealed to Nixon. The plan would also enable him to reduce significantly the size and the power of the welfare bureaucracy—in general Nixon loathed the bureaucracies, viewing them with suspicion as definitely not on his side. Though Nixon announced his proposal with great fanfare on television, he quickly lost interest in it. In congress both liberals and conservatives disliked the plan, but for different reasons: many liberals felt that the payments were too low—and conservatives wanted nothing to do with cash payments for the poor. And so the program died on Capitol Hill. This was fine with Nixon, who in fact had told Haldeman that his goal was to convince liberals that he wanted to propose something progressive that conservatives would kill.

In the case of race, the most thorny domestic issue, Nixon’s policies were a mixed picture. He campaigned in 1968 on the “Southern strategy”: to appeal to both Southerners and blue collar workers in the North perturbed by efforts toward racial integration. In other efforts to have it both ways, Nixon sought to please liberals by ordering the Justice Department to enforce court orders on integration—and conservatives by making it clear that he would go no further than that. He openly opposed the busing of children in order to achieve racial integration of schools, a problem of particular sensitivity in the urban North. Nixon ordered the firing of Leon Panetta, then a Republican, from his job as head of the civil rights division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare because Panetta openly complained that the administration was moving too slowly toward school integration. Nixon wanted to get George Romney, his Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs, who pressed for housing integration in suburbs, out of his cabinet, but, characteristically, he couldn’t bring himself to fire him, and turned the matter over to John Mitchell, but Romney resisted Mitchell’s suggestions that he go.

Nixon displayed a marked indecisiveness at times, especially when it came to personnel, and his hesitation to fire Romney was fed by the storm that had broken out not long before over the fact that he had fired Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, who was popular among environmentalists and younger people. Hickel had been an anti-environmentalist when Nixon selected him, but he changed as he got closer to the subject. He had also infuriated Nixon

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