Friday, January 9, 2009

37th President

Richard Nixon was born on this date in 1913.

I have written a fair amount on this blog about the man who was president of the United States from 1969 to 1974, including his unprecedented resignation from that office, after he was engulfed in scandal.

One question about Nixon has always interested me, and I have rarely heard it discussed in exactly these terms by major political commentators: why was the hatred of Nixon, at least among a certain left-wing faction, so strong?

I recall an incident from my days on my high school debate team. This must have been at some point during 1974 or 1975. A debate judge (the judges at a tournament generally consisted of debate coaches from other schools, most (if not all) of whom were teachers) asked the names of those of us on the opposing teams. Merely attempting to make a silly joke, I introduced myself as Richard, as in Richard Nixon. The mere mention of that name set the judge off on a tirade about how awful Nixon was. That was a particularly sensitive time regarding opinions about the man, and few teachers would have been Republican supporters anyway. And my adolescent political views were in synch with the substance of that tirade. Even so, I was taken aback by his vehemence, and, obviously, the memory has stayed with me, decades later.

Chris Matthews wrote a book entitled Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Post-War America, in 1996. Matthews addressed the question I posed above. I don't have the book in front of me but, as I recall, his argument was along these lines:

Was it Watergate? No, because the phenomenon predated that scandal.

Was it because Nixon was too conservative? Nixon's presidential record does not bear that out. He signed the first major environmental legislation, and he did not, to any major extent, undo the expansion of federal programs that had been brought about by his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson.

Was it because of his anti-communist stance? Not exactly. Leading Democrats during Nixon's time in Congress, including John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey took similar positions. And, while many Democrats attacked Joe McCarthy's tactics and statements, Kennedy's position on McCarthy was ambiguous.

Matthews ties it in to the case of Alger Hiss. He asks his readers to put themselves into the mindset of 1940s leftists. Hiss, although not aristocratic in background, was the epitome of the Eastern Establishment. He had worked in Franklin Roosevelt's administration, and was a key State Department figure involved in the development of the United Nations, and in the Yalta Conference of Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill in 1945.

Hiss was subsequently accused of spying for the Soviet Union. He was convicted, not of espionage, but of perjury. In addition to his criminal trial, he was investigated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and freshman Representative Nixon played a major role in that.

Matthews's thesis is that it was the contrast between the images of Hiss, the handsome eastern sophisticate, and Nixon, the (shall we say) plain-looking newcomer from the backwoods of the west, that turned at least a certain faction of the left violently against the new congressman.

While many people in the East today have negative opinions about southern California, those are different from the disdain that must have been felt in the 1940s. California was still only the fifth largest state in population, according to the 1940 census. And, while the motion picture industry was, by then, fully established in Hollywood, the eastern intelligentsia would probably have identified it with conservative studio moguls such as Louis B. Mayer. It was not yet a world with which they would have wanted to associate themselves.

Matthews concludes that Nixon got off to a bad start with that crowd, and all that came later was not the root cause of their hatred, but merely fuel that kept the fire going. That's the most plausible explanation that I've heard.

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