The Nixon I Didnt Know
I 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.
I 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 Id never really know him.
He was impressive but not awesome. And he completed my disillusionment with politics.
He had been the most powerful man on earth, with life and death power over billions. Id 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 arent fit to have it. Nobody can be. Jesus didnt want it.
The 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.
The 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 Norths 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.
All 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.
How 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?
Bush is often ridiculed for his stupidity, but his real defect is an embarrassing incuriosity. Like so many people in our media-stunted age, he doesnt want to know. In the great aphorism of Richard Whately, He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.
Bush 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 Bushs, was poised and literate. It has been said that a striking difference between America and Europe today is that European leaders speak English.
Bush, to do him justice, seems aware of his own deficiencies. He jokes at his own expense, as when he recently praised Britains Tony Blair for being articulate; last year he was reading Shakespeares 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!)
If the thought of Nixon wielding enormous power is unsettling, given the constraints of the Cold War, the thought of Bush ruling the worlds only superpower without such constraints is downright terrifying. Nixon, a man who had the virtue of prudence, knew when to stop.
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