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 The Nixon I Didn’t Know 

August 2, 2007 
paragraph indentI liked Richard Nixon, and he seemed to like me. I met him a couple of times after he resigned from the presidency. He was nothing like the ogre liberals described.

Today's column is "The Nixon I Didn't Know" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.paragraph indentI found him kind, decent, gracious, intelligent, well-spoken, charming, witty, easy to like, and, though able to relax sociably with strangers, indisposed to share his innermost thoughts. I realized I’d never really know him.

paragraph indentHe was impressive but not awesome. And he completed my disillusionment with politics.

paragraph indentHe had been the most powerful man on earth, with life and death power over billions. I’d expected to be awed. But the only thing that awed me was that he was so little different from the rest of us. I was shocked and awed that we should have permitted any man to hold such power. You and I aren’t fit to have it. Nobody can be. Jesus didn’t want it.

paragraph indentThe genius of the original American constitutional system was simple. It just dispersed power. The “free and independent states” kept their sovereignty and “delegated” (that is, lent them, with the right to take them back) only a few specific legislative powers to a congress. The executive was not royal. He could be impeached and peacefully removed for any act the congress deemed criminal. The federal courts were also weak.

paragraph indentThe states, being sovereign, could secede for any reason. That is, they could reclaim the powers they had only delegated to the Union. In principle, they still can. The “Civil War” was actually the North’s war on all the states and the Constitution. Michigan and Maine were fighting to destroy their own sovereignty! Apart from the late and accidental war aim of abolishing slavery, the Northern victory was a defeat for liberty.

paragraph indentAll this had been forgotten by most Americans long before Richard Milhous Nixon came along. The “imperial” presidency the anti-Nixon liberals deprecated was merely part of the monolithic imperial state — yea, a global empire — those same liberals had already been cheering on for several generations.

[Breaker quote for The Nixon I Didn't Know: He made me an anarchist.]paragraph indentHow amusing to recall that Thomas Jefferson had had well-founded constitutional scruples about grabbing the greatest real-estate bargain in history — the Louisiana Purchase. Lincoln also doubted his own constitutional authority to free any slaves. When we teach kids history, we teach them the wrong things, superficial things like mere dates and events instead of deeper changes in the way our ancestors thought. At least Jefferson and Lincoln, both brilliant men, might have understood each other; but could either have made himself intelligible to President Bush?

paragraph indentBush is often ridiculed for his stupidity, but his real defect is an embarrassing incuriosity. Like so many people in our media-stunted age, he doesn’t want to know. In the great aphorism of Richard Whately, “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.”

paragraph indentBush reasons from crude abstractions about freedom, religion, history, and so forth, terminating in banal slogans; he has the kind of mind an Ivy League education like the one he received is supposed to prevent. Nixon emerged from undistinguished Whittier College with a far subtler mind because he had the drive to educate himself and also had a humble awareness of history. He was intelligent enough to have written his own speeches if he had wanted to, and his extemporaneous speech, in contrast to Bush’s, was poised and literate. It has been said that a striking difference between America and Europe today is that European leaders speak English.

paragraph indentBush, to do him justice, seems aware of his own deficiencies. He jokes at his own expense, as when he recently praised Britain’s Tony Blair for being articulate; last year he was reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, better late than never. But even this reading betokened a shallow mind, as if he assumed that the profoundest works of Western literature could be read once, like whodunits, and possessed. (Lincoln knew and loved Shakespeare, often reading him aloud to friends; he probably saw John Wilkes Booth star in Macbeth, his favorite!)

paragraph indentIf the thought of Nixon wielding enormous power is unsettling, given the constraints of the Cold War, the thought of Bush ruling the world’s only superpower without such constraints is downright terrifying. Nixon, a man who had the virtue of prudence, knew when to stop.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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