I am vexed by a conversation today on Fresh Air about historian Robert Dallek’s new book Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. I am vexed because I consider my perceptions of Nixon’s memory more positively than I do my present perceptions of 43. I’m a former movement conservative, and a fan of Hunter Thompson, which means I hate Nixon’s ghost for the reactive Reagan-as-savior madness it bred and how it can be described justly, in Thompson’s apoplectic prose. He was dark, and evil, and we are better to have rid ourselves of him. Why then, do I regard his memory with greater esteem than I do the White House’s current occupant?
For one thing, 43 is clearly the worse of the pair on many counts: Nixon was a grudging Keynesean who considered instituting a living wage, 43 is an unabashed Norquistiista who would cut Larry Ellison’s taxes while adopting his spending habits; Nixon established the EPA and watched Earth Day take root, Bush bailed on Kyoto, snuggles up to oil companies, and encourages his EPA to toe an industry-drawn line; Nixon was a part-time anti-Semite who relied almost pathologically on a German Jew, and protected Israel out of realpolitikal sense, 43 is a pro-Semite who wards Israel so it may host Armageddon, and counts as his closest advisors people who worship a Jew loudly but apparently have never read the words ascribed to Him; Nixon engaged America’s enemies while searching for advantages in peace, however short, however mercenary, while 43 senselessly mongers war against former intelligence assets who left the reservation, to no one’s benefit but America’s avowed enemies; Nixon sucked gin and popped pills and waxed paranoid, 43 teetotals and swigs near-beer and never wavers; Nixon galvanized the left, and chagrined the right, and made of himself a target that no one could deny, 43 incenses the left, and is so shameless in his stubbornness that the right follows him, if for no other reason than to see exactly how far he will take his naked Emperor’s stroll, and has made a political target of himself so egregious and obvious that even his staunchest enemies have sworn off engaging him. It would be unseemly to pick so low-hanging a fruit.
But–and this is where CM’s audience should sigh with relief, because we have met the moment of relevance to common interest–Nixon’s memory is greater than 43’s present, and future, because Nixon saw himself, however imbued with hubris, within the confines of historical narrative. He was a Constitutional creature, playing by established rules, in a zero-sum game. He knew he could lose, and when he did, finally, lose, at the hand of the Supreme Court, which ordered him to turn over his tapes, he ultimately did an historically honorable thing. He fell on his sword.
Also, consider that he was taping himself, and his subordinates in the first place–there are myriad other reasons he might have used such a system, but significant among them had to be that he considered the actions of his office as necessarily historic, in the most common sense of the word. He was the temporary holder of an office that was, as much as Augustus’ throne ever did, shaping the world on the fly. He cared about history, and his place in it. Call it megalomania, but at least Nixon recognized there was a flow, that he was part of it, that some aspects of it were bigger than him and beyond his control, and that others might stand over his grave, poring through transcripts, ascribing, finally, right and wrong to his days.
43, who would slap a top-secret stamp on used toilet paper, relies on secrecy not because he fears history, but because he does not believe in it. The neocon reality arrives as he wills it, and disappears as he dispatches it. The Constitution appears to be nothing more than a speed-bump for him to flatten with signing statements. His “election” in 2000 was a priest-king’s restoration after an unseemly eight years of excessive populism and heretical rationality. 43 may not understand history, yet if he would but scan it he would notice himself inside, recurrent and perennial: he is the insane last child of a failed dynasty; he is pockmarked, petulant and riven with sickness in the heart and mind. He sits enthroned astride the globe convinced by experience and the fawning of of his acolytes that his potent will raises and lowers the sun. They have said as much: it is a new world. They make reality. By denying history, they glaze the man with historicity.
We might call him Ozymandias, and compare the irony inherent in it all to Nixon’s tragic life and fall. But that’s a disservice to Nixon. If there’s an afterlife, and Hell is a part of it, Nixon will have long ago worked his way up the chain of command, doing to Satan’s org chart what he’s done to my sense of American Royal Memory. By the time 43 arrives, this dichotomy of American presidential evil will be manifest in a very ironic and very tragic end that affirms, rather than dispels history’s verve: there’ll be no Americans left in the Inferno’s historical villain’s silo, and our ivy-schooled decider will spend eternity trying to make sense of Caligula’s latinate rantings–43 will think the man a Grecian–warding off the insistent, sodomitical advances of Ernst Roehm and spending the endless night of his reward dabbing the sweat from Chairman Mao’s syphillitically canchred fat rolls, all the while staring up, in the dim, at the crusted half-moon split of Nixon’s superior fundament–who, though evil in his own way, knew that he was a man, and a man in time.