What Nixon Wrought: The Worst Presidency of the Century
The New Republic, May 16, 1994
Nixon revisionism was probably inevitable, and no doubt will continue stronger than ever in the wake of its subject's death on April 22. The old caricatures--Nixon as villainous schemer, mad bomber, domestic underachiever-- were bound to collapse, because they were built more on Nixon's personality than on his record. A more recent crowd, however, at a further remove from his presidency, is reconsidering that record. Look beyond Watergate, they say, and you find a blemished but strong presidency, tough and flexible abroad, innovative and liberal at home. If not for the scandal that finally brought him down, Richard Nixon would have gone down as not only a fine president but maybe even a great one.
Twenty years on, with the shadow of Watergate receding and the Nixon revisionists bringing a fresh spirit of objectivity to the subject, it's possible to take a clearer look at the Nixon record. But in doing so, one is taken aback. Even setting Watergate entirely to one side, as though it had never happened, Nixon must be put down as easily the worst president of the postwar era, and probably of this century. The revisionists are right about one thing. Watergate, however deplorable, was pathology rather than policy. To help clarify the substantive record of those years, let's agree, then, to consider Nixon without considering Watergate. Let's also grant that Nixon's opening to China was a major accomplishment. It gave the Soviets a headache and recognized the reality of China not a moment too soon. So give him credit for China--and then set that, too, to one side, where it can (partially) offset the blot of Watergate. That done, the vast gray expanses that constitute the bulk of Nixon's record lie before us. And it's not a pretty sight.
THE most important foreign policy event of Nixon's presidency was not China but the Vietnam War. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaigned against escalating the war; in 1965 he escalated it, with self-evidently grim results. And then he was destroyed. Having witnessed this, Nixon, amazingly, repeated the mistake-- and of course the same mistake is a lot worse the second time you make it. " We will end this one and win the peace," Nixon told the voters in 1968. After the 1952 elections Eisenhower promptly got out of Korea, as he had promised. After the 1968 elections Nixon did not get out of Vietnam. Rather, he prosecuted the war seemingly endlessly while simultaneously negotiating to leave it. It was not war until victory, but war until escape. That a politician as supposedly astute as Nixon would carry on a losing war in open defiance of a public mandate to end it beggars belief. Nixon's secret bombings, his wartime lies, his betrayal of the voters all taught millions of Americans that government could not be trusted. Johnson had already betrayed the voters once, but they got rid of him. By the time Nixon had finished going Johnson one better, millions of Americans believed, with reason, that the government itself was a fountain of lies. On the day Nixon died Hillary Rodham Clinton wrestled with that legacy as she faced down the press on Whitewater.
Nixon's dallying in Vietnam left more than 15,000 additional Americans dead, to say nothing of more than half a million Vietnamese. If those lives had bought a better settlement in 1973 than could have been achieved in 1969, then perhaps they could be justified. But they bought nothing; the Americans left and in due course South Vietnam fell to the Communists, and that was that. To which add the rending of consensus as the war tore American culture into raging camps, one angrily radical and the other angrily reactionary; and the sapping of American confidence and morale as the fighting dragged on fruitlessly (the "Vietnam syndrome," the sense of weakness, "malaise"); and the financial cost, partly expressed as inflation; and the sheer scalding horror of the battle itself. To all of which, a gruesome codicil: by taking the war into Cambodia, Nixon turned Vietnam's neighbor into a Communist battleground with ultimate consequences, for the Cambodians, ghastly beyond words.
By comparison with Nixon's awful Vietnam policy, his detente with the Soviets was positively shining. Yet Nixon's effort to reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions without abandoning containment, if no disaster, hardly deserves accolades. Detente may have made the world a little safer, but it also eased pressure on the Soviets and so may have prolonged the Soviet era, and in any case it all came apart under Jimmy Carter when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. As foreign policy, perhaps detente was no worse than a digression. However, its baleful effects on domestic policy remain underappreciated.
ALTHOUGH Ronald Reagan deserves ample credit for wrecking the government's finances, he could not have done it without Nixon's enthusiastic help. In 1969, when Nixon took office, Washington was spending about 20 percent of the gross domestic product. In 1975, after he left, it was spending 22 percent. A fairly big change; but the important part is what happened within the totals. In 1969 defense spending accounted for 9 percent of GDP, and entitlement programs for individuals accounted for a bit more than 6 percent. In 1975, just six years later, defense was down to 5.7 percent. Where did all that money go? The answer: by 1975 entitlement programs were up to more than 10 percent! By any standard, this was a staggering change to have made in only six years.
The post-Vietnam, post-detente military build-down may or may not have been justifiable on the merits. The problem was that when Nixon's delicate detente crashed, the party was over. President Carter began a military buildup that President Reagan turbocharged. What they did not do was pay for it. And a reason they didn't pay for it was that, short of political trench warfare, the giant amounts that Nixon had dumped into entitlements could not be recovered from the millions of beneficiaries who clung to them. With the prop of detente removed, the government found itself overexposed and overcommitted.
We are paying the price right now, in the form of large deficits that will not go away. Sure, Reaganomics took a bad situation and made it awful. But if Reagan ran the car into a ditch, it was Nixon who had disabled the brakes. The main structural elements of the deficit were put in place under Nixon: indeed, the deficit crisis had already begun to emerge during the Ford years and has crippled every president since. For twenty years we've been struggling with the structural consequences of Nixon's recklessness, and quite possibly, until someone tackles the entitlement programs, we will be struggling with it for a lot longer. And it has made an active and effective social policy virtually impossible.
Under Nixon, spending on the poor--means-tested spending--almost doubled as a share of GDP. But that was, and is, too small an amount to be the source of today's headaches. Look instead at spending on Social Security, Medicare and the other federal retirement programs, which go predominantly to the nonpoor. In 1969 they accounted for 4.2 percent of GDP; in 1975, 6.3 percent. (Today, it's 8.2 percent, but the increase since Nixon is largely due to Medicare, whose rising cost is part of the larger health care problem.) A big portion of the increase came in Social Security, and thereby hangs a tale.
IN 1972 Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, took it into his head to run for president. What better way to grease the skids than with a little money for seniors? The Nixon White House grumbled, and at first resisted, but then gave in to a permanent 20 percent increase in Social Security benefits. It really was beautiful. Nixon signed the hike into law in September 1972, in time for beneficiaries to get their higher checks on October 1, a month before the election--and, in case anyone missed the point, the administration sent recipients a helpful reminder that their checks had swelled. The increase was so large that it accounted for more than half of the rise in personal income in the fourth quarter of 1972. Now, you can blame Mills for having set this gravy train in motion, but the president's job was to stop it, not to climb aboard waving his hat. One strains to think of another domestic policy action (the burying of the s&l crisis in the Reagan years?) so craven and costly.
This was all part of Nixon's re-election strategy, which was, among other things, to find every economic gas pedal he could and floor them. He threw money at the seniors. He instructed his Cabinet officers in early 1972 to spend as quickly as they could. He hounded the Federal Reserve to open the money spigots, which the Fed, misreading the economy, was inclined to do anyway. In 1972 growth of the money supply went stratospheric. And here arises the matter of inflation. Nixon disliked inflation, but not enough to sacrifice rapid growth--least of all with an election coming. And so his search for painless remedies led him to that monument of economic ineptitude, the wage and price controls that began in 1971 and didn't completely peter out until 1974.
They failed, of course. Despite the controls and (in the words of Herbert Stein, Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers chairman) "the national travail, the administrative costs ... the interference with investment in basic industries and economic distortions they caused," inflation pressed ahead (at 6.6 percent over the period). And when the controls came off, inflation surged still more. Nixon and his people, though chastened, never did get a handle on inflation. When they realized the cost of fighting it, they were unwilling to pay. "So," writes Stein in his book Presidential Economics, "they all went chasing off after panaceas." Before long, the situation was slipping out of control. The inflation of the 1970s placed the economy in greater danger than at any time since the Depression. In the end, stamping out the Nixon (and Carter) inflation pitched the country into the deepest recession since the Depression.
Twenty years later, we are still heaving from the aftershocks of the Great Inflation. It sparked the savings and loan crisis. It destroyed the Bretton Woods monetary system, for which we still have not found a very satisfactory replacement. It introduced permanent doubts about the soundness of money, doubts that still induce long-term investors to demand higher interest rates. It helped drive entitlement payments through the roof. Its collapse contributed, through the tax code and a soaring dollar, to the budget and trade deficits. In many ways large and small, the U.S. economy is to this day working through the thousand traumas of the inflation that Nixon helped to create and then failed to subdue.
WE are still struggling with Nixon's racial policy, too. Johnson had been experimenting with requirements that federal contractors employ certain numbers of blacks and other minorities, but Nixon, notes University of Maryland historian Herman Belz, was the one who fought to retain the experiment and then expanded it to cover all federal contractors. "It was decisive executive branch support for color-conscious employment policies," says Belz, who is the author of a history of affirmative action. Here a distinction is important. Affirmative action can mean making an effort to find qualified minorities, or it can mean color-based targets and set-asides and dual standards and so on. It was Nixon who committed the government to the latter.
Policies that explicitly allocate jobs and money based on skin color and parentage have turned out to be factories of resentment, polarizing to a degree that is wildly out of proportion to their real importance (or their demonstrated benefits--blacks made their fastest economic gains before 1970). Twenty years on, despite evidence that race-based entitlements aggravate the racial problems they were intended to solve, they look as permanent as any other entitlement. It isn't fair to blame the Nixon people for failing to see that racial entitlements would take on a life of their own and become a bitter irritant, or to blame only the Nixon people. But a mistake is still a mistake.
NO consideration of Nixon's record is complete without looking at what may, in the end, be seen as Nixon's most important legacy. Nixon was the Great Regulator. It was he who built the modern regulatory apparatus. Unlike the wage and price controls or the Vietnam policies, which were straightforwardly stupid, the regulatory legacy is complicated and hard to assess--and it is nothing as simple as a "mistake." Almost all would agree that we need some form of environmental protection. What is harder to defend, however, is the scale and speed and, indeed, reckless abandon with which Nixon regulated.
A partial list includes, in 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act; in 1970, the Poison Prevention Packaging Act, the Clean Air Amendments, the Occupational Safety and Health Act; in 1972, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Noise Pollution and Control Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act; in 1973, the Vocational Rehabilitation Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act; in 1974, the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act. Nixon opened the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Under Nixon the number of pages in the Federal Register (which publishes regulations) went from under 20,000 per year to three times that amount, where it has stayed ever since.
Thomas D. Hopkins, an economist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, estimates that the bill for all this regulation today comes to more than half a trillion dollars per year, or something like $5,000 per household. If it is true, as many economists argue, that the swelling mass of regulation is an important cause of the slowdown that has plagued the U.S. economy since about 1973, that still doesn't necessarily mean that the regulations aren't worth the cost. But there's the real problem. We don't know what all that money is buying, or even how to measure what it buys. How much is it worth to save spotted owls? To remove the last ounce of sulfur dioxide from the air? Even when we can measure benefits, the results are often ignored. Some of the regulatory system that Nixon built makes sense, but some of it is inefficient, irrational or just there because it's there. And, as Al Gore is now discovering, sorting through and rationalizing this steaming bureaucratic pile is an Augean job.
Nixon's regulatory revolution, then, was not a mistake in the same sense as his egregious bribe of the elderly, his Vietnam policies, his wage and price controls. We don't really know what it was. But the drive to do so much, so quickly, so permanently, all without knowing what we were doing or how to do it rationally or where it should end or even how to end it, was a mistake. And it was typical of Nixon, who through it all talked a pro-business, anti- regulatory game.
A caveat. I don't mean to imply that Nixon ran the whole country or was responsible for everything that happened. Most presidents can barely even run the government (it runs them). In all of the policies I've cited, Congress, the public, the lobbies and the flow of events played their roles. I also don't mean to imply that everything the Nixon people did was bad. They did some innovative social thinking (notably the failed proposal for a guaranteed annual income) and posted their share of minor to middling accomplishments. Yet, on the record, it is hard to think of any other president in this century (Harding? Hoover?) whose tenure left the country with so many traumatic problems: Vietnam and its aftermath, runaway inflation, runaway entitlements, fiscal rupture, regulatory overkill. Any one of those (except maybe the last) is a mistake of the same magnitude as the Reagan deficits. Any two of them would be enough to consign Nixon to the bottom drawer. But all of them together! In the end, Nixon committed about as long a chain of devastating mistakes as it is possible for a single president to make, even in six years of trying hard. Worse, his mistakes have been gifts that keep on giving. We have spent the last two decades struggling to undo his errors, and may spend another two the same way. He left behind an embittered, polarized country, a nation disillusioned with its government, unsure of its place in the world, whiplashed by its economy and condemned to years of fiscal strife. If a good president builds confidence without making big mistakes, Nixon was as bad as they get.