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The Atlantic Monthly | Feb 1972
o most people, both those who admire him and those who detest him, President Richard M. Nixon is a two-dimensional figure, a cardboard President. He is either the Trick E. Dixon of Philip Roth's brutal satire, or the statesman and peace-bringer of the Republican campaign handouts. The purpose of this report is to suggest that, behind the cardboard facade, President Nixon is a very odd and interesting manone of the two or three most genuinely idiosyncratic human beings ever to have occupied the Oval Office; and that the qualities that make him so unusual deeply affect, both for better and for worse, his conduct of the presidency.
Nixon and the Square Majority: Is the Fox a Lion?
He didn't "bring us together." Why does 1972 look like his year?
by Stewart Alsop
There are four odd facts about Mr. Nixon that tell a good deal about the man. First, he is the kind of man who, before putting his legs up on a silk-covered stool or ottoman, goes into the bathroom and gets a towel to put under his legs. Second, as a Navy lieutenant in World War II, this young and presumably unworldly Quaker played such brilliant poker that he came home with a nest egg of around $10,000. Third, although most people think of him as the archetypal Wasp, he is very much an Irishman and, on his father's side, that special breed, a Black Irishman. Fourth, on his mother's side, he is a descendant of a line of successful itinerant lady preachers.
The first of these odd facts about Mr. Nixon was discovered by one of his numerous aides. (He has more aides than even that avid people-collector, Lyndon Johnson.) The aide had been summoned to the President's hideaway office in the rococo old State Department building, to deliver a draft of a paper to the President. He found Mr. Nixon seated in an armchair, nibbling on his eyeglasses and scribbling notes on one of the two yellow-lined pads that serve him as security blankets (he used to use one pad, but since he became President, he needs two). The President had his legs stretched out in front of him on a big, silk-covered footstool, and underneath his feet was a bath towel.
What was the towel doing there? the aide asked himself. The answer was obvious. The President had gone into the bathroom to get the towel and had put it on the ottoman to protect the government-issue silk before putting his feet up. What other President, the aide later found himself wondering, would have bothered to get that towel? Certainly not Johnson, or Kennedy, or Eisenhowerperhaps no President at all, right back to George Washington.
The towel is a useful symbol. It says something about a certain instinctive cautiousness in the man, a carefulness that rules out spontaneity. More important, the towel is a symbol of the President's relentless middle-classness. The antimacassar used to be the hallmark of the respectable middle-class American home, and the President's towel was a sort of surrogate antimacassar. The towel, in short, is a symbol of the President's squareness. He is not just squarehe is totally square.
In an interview with me when he first ran for President, Mr. Nixon provided a vivid glimpse of this quality of total respectability, of utter squareness:
NIXON: I believe in keeping my own counsel. It's something like wearing clothingif you let down your hair, you feel too naked. I remember when I'd just started law practice. I had a divorce case to handle, and this good-looking girl, beautiful really, began talking to me about her intimate marriage problems.
The President's political strength relates directly to that embarrassed young man. If antimacassars were still being used, it would be accurate to say that the antimacassar vote was the President's basic constituency. His political strategy is based on the assumption that a majority of the American electorate consists of people like himselfmiddle-class squares.
ALSOP: And you were embarrassed?
NIXON: Embarrassed? I turned fifteen colors of the rainbow. I suppose I came from a family too unmodern, really.
Economically, at least, this is by no means an irrational assumption. According to the 1970 census, the median income for a family of four in this country is $11,167. An income of $11,167 is a solid middle-class income, even allowing for inflation, heavy taxes, high interest rates, and all the other economic slings and arrows that afflict Americans. By previous standards, it is even a rather high middle-class incomea Trollope or Jane Austen character with that kind of income might have qualified for the lower gentry. Moreover, the social mores and political views of the middle-class American majority are certainly much closer to those of Mr. Nixon than to those of readers of the New York Review of Booksor, one suspects, of this magazine.
ll sorts of ingenious theories have been put forward to explain Mr. Nixon. For example, a recent article by a couple of Berkeley academics propounded the interesting thesis that Richard Nixon is explicable only in terms of the fact that he is "an anal-compulsive character." Surely it is simpler to start with the assumption that Mr. Nixon is what he so obviously isa shy and inward-looking man, from "a family too unmodern, really," who grew up believing strongly in the middle-class values of his boyhood in Yorba Linda and Whittier, California.
This background, as the episode of the towel suggests, still deeply affects Mr. Nixon's style, his whole approach to life. By the time they have reached their upper fifties, for most people the attitudes of their youth are dim, and scuffed badly around the edges. Mr. Nixon's are virtually pristine.
To cite two examples, it really is astonishing to him that a good many Americans are not much interested in making the effort necessary to assure that this country will remain "number one in the world." And the President was genuinely surprised when he made his famous dawn expedition to the Lincoln Memorial during the Cambodian crisis, and found that the young protesters who gathered around him simply weren't interested in talking about football.
Here again, it would be a mistake to underestimate the political impact of the President's squareness. A healthy majority of the President's fellow squares want their country to remain number one in the world, and, also like the President, interest themselves passionately in football. But the President's squareness in such respects is not a political put-on. He certainly recognizes the political usefulness of being known as a sports fanhe obliquely acknowledged the political impact of football last fall when he came out foursquare for Washington's beleaguered Redskins, despite "the fact that are no votes in Washington." But his football obsession, like his true-blue, Whittier-style patriotism comes entirely naturally to him.
To Mr. Nixonas to many millions of his fellow squaresthe point of a game is to win. A football team should strive with all its might to be number
one in its league, and the United States should strive with all its might to be "number one in the world." For that matter, a Navy lieutenant should strive to win every winnable hand at poker, and a President of the United States should strive not only to win re-election, but to win it by the biggest possible
majority. A desire to win, however, is not an ideology. In his first three years in the White House, President Nixon has amply demonstrated that he has no ideology.
Here we come to the second of those odd facts about him. No doubt the avaricious poker players in the Pacific rear areas where Lieutenant Nixon served out his war thought that this young Quaker would be a nice fat pigeon. Instead, he soon turned out to be one of the most aggressively successful poker players in the Navy. Today, his lack of any overburdening ideology makes it possible for him to use the talent which made him a brilliant poker player to their fullest, unencumbered by ideological convictions. It makes it possible for him to "finesse" (this Nixonian verb, rather surprisingly, is borrowed from bridge, not poker) his natural enemies, the liberal Democrats.
Since he became President, he has finessed the Democrats again and again. His central vulnerability when he took office was, of course, Vietnam. The Democratic dove-liberals, both in politics and in the media, were positively licking their chops at the prospect of destroying Nixon as Lyndon Johnson had been destroyed, using Vietnam as their blunt instrument.
The President's basic technique for dealing with this danger has had a lot to do with the technique of a poker bluff. He emitted great clouds of rhetoric about how he would "not be the first American President to preside over a defeat," and at the same time initiated what was the greatest retreat short of victory in American history.
The danger was obvious from the startthat the retreat would turn into a rout, and thus result in that overt and unconcealable defeat over which the President had said he would never preside. His formula for averting the danger was "Vietnamization," but as the withdrawals continued, it became increasingly clear that "Vietnamization" could not possibly work unless the war's established ground rules were changed. The old ground rules permitted the Communists to attack at will from Laos and Cambodia, without fear of ground counterattack in Laos, or any kind of counterattack in Cambodia. The President took a poker player's bold chance, and changed the ground rules, first in Cambodia, then in Laos.
He paid a high price. After Cambodia especially, it seemed possible that he would be destroyed by Vietnam, as Johnson was destroyed. But on balance, the
President's gamble seems to have paid off. It is a considerably better-than-even bet that by election day that unconcealable defeat, with the VC flag fluttering over Saigon, which was the chief risk involved in
"Vietnamization," will not have occurred.
If the President, as seems likely, leaves behind a small, all-professional, all-volunteer residual force, as re-insurance against that kind of defeat, the Democrats will certainly make the residual force an issue. There is no doubt that most of the voters are sick unto death of the Vietnam War. But Mr. Nixon has often said in private that if the Democrats want to make Vietnam the major issue, he will be delighted. And surely it will not be altogether easy for the Democrats to attack a President who has withdrawn half a million men without disaster from a war they cranked up. Some shrewd Democratic professionalsHubert Humphrey, for instancebelieve that it would be smart politics for the Democrats to pretend that Vietnam never existed.
Elsewhere on the foreign-policy front, the President is busily burnishing his image as a blessed peacemaker, and his trips to Peking and Moscow, while they are unlikely to result in any diplomatic triumphs, will make the image shinier. A President is always a creature of destiny, of course, and some major disaster abroad could deburnish the image in a hurry. But on balance, Mr. Nixon's conduct of foreign policy should be a net plus next November.
conomic disaster at home would be far more surely fatal to the President's re-election prospects than disaster abroad. But the President's sudden reversal of economic policy in August was a tribute to the political usefulness of being unencumbered by ideology. One thing is sure: Mr. Nixon will do absolutely everything in his power to make good on his endlessly repeated prediction that 1972 will be "a very good year." And at least one Democratic issue that could have been decisivethe
charge of flaccid inaction in the face of unemployment, inflation, and the international enfeeblement of the dollarhas been finessed.
Other issues have been finessed. Repeatedly, the liberal Democrats have reached for a stick with which to beat the President, only to have him snatch it away from them. In technical-political terms, it has been a skillful performance, fascinating to watch.
Take, for example, the issue of environmental pollution. Senator Edmund Muskie is an authentic expert on pollutionhe became deeply interested in the subject long before it became a fashionable issue. It was interesting to watch Muskie's face as President Nixon, delivering his 1970 State of the Union message, launched into a passionate peroration on the need for a multibillion-dollar program to "improve the quality of life." Muskie's expression was a bit like that of the small boy who has lost the game but has been told to be a good sport about it.
Muskie's countermove, moreover, neatly illustrated the dilemma into which the President's technique of finessing the issues has propelled the liberal Democrats. Muskie called a press conference, denounced the President's program as a cheap fraud, and called for spending a great deal more money to deal with the pollution problem.
As Senator Hugh Scott, the Senate Republican leader, likes to point out with a small, contented smile, the Democrats are, in this respect, in a worse bind than the Republicans were when they were labeled "the me-too party." "At least the Republicans were promising to do a better job for a lot less," Scott says. "Now the Democrats have to promise to do a better job for a lot more." The promise to spend a lot more money is not universally appealing in a time of inflation and high taxes.
That is the weakness of the issue Senator Edward Kennedy has chosen as his major issueuniversal medical insurance. The merits of the matter aside, a program which has a $70 billion price tag hung on it is not easily salable, especially when the Administration has finessed the issue with a much cheaper program of its own.
Other issues have been similarly finessed. The Democrats were all set to make the "question of national priorities"meaning less money for defense and more for social programsa central issue. With the help of that dove-in-hawk's-clothing Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, plus a lot of built-in increases in HEW spending, plus some phony bookkeeping, the President was able to boast that, in fiscal 1971, spending for social needs would exceed military expenditures, for the first time in twenty years.
Tax reform, which was one of Robert Kennedy's favorite issues, and draft reform, another favorite issue of Edward Kennedy's, were similarly finessed. The liberal Democrats were just beginning to think hard about proposing a floor under incomes of the poor when, lo and behold, the Republican President proposed precisely that, over the objections of all but two or three of his advisers. Again, the Democrats were reduced to saying, "me too, only more."
All this finessing has shoved the Nixon Administration a good deal further to the left than most Nixonologists would have believed possible when the President took office. But the President has been able, with an assist from Spiro Agnew, to appease the right-wing ideologues with his rhetoricrhetoric always means more to ideologues than real issuesand with his conservative appointments or attempted appointments, especially to the Supreme Court. There are, of course, loud anti-Nixonian mutterings among the right ideologues, but their voting strength is negligible. What matters a great deal more to Mr. Nixon is the voting strengthand the electoral college strengthof the South.
The nominations of Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court were, of course, aimed at the South. They did the President some harm in the North, but memories fade fast (quick now, who was Francis Xavier Morrissey?). The names of Haynsworth and Carswell are already fading in Northern memories, but they still are vividly remembered in the South. To judge by the polls, the famous "Southern strategy" is working, and working rather well, thanks to such nominations, plus Spiro T. Agnew's oratory, plus an attitude of benign neglect on civil rights. Nixon runs far ahead of all the liberal Democrats in tests of Southern sentiment, and he also runs ahead of George C. Wallace, even in the Deep South.
George Wallace is the chief threat to Nixon's strategy of co-opting the square majority. In 1968, Wallace took 13 percent of the vote, and he might have taken a lot more if the labor chiefs had not made a Herculean effort to cut Wallace down to size in the last few weeks of the campaign. In the next election, the labor leaders may not be so eager to hold Wallace down, for it is now obvious that most of the Wallace vote, North and South, will come out of Mr. Nixon's hide. For Wallace, like Nixon, is the candidate of the squares. He is the candidate of a special segment of squaredom, the angry squaresthe disaffected middle-class and lower-middle-class voters, who are furious at the radical young and the militant blacks, and who represent a far bigger minority than either.
Wallace is by now a professional presidential candidate. But more polls showing the President beating Wallace on his own turf just might dry up Wallace's financial sources and force him out of the race, perhaps with some sort of quid pro quo from the Administration or from the fatter cats among Mr. Nixon's supporters. This was one reason why the President was so furious at the Democratic dollar-a-voter tax bill rider, for it virtually guaranteed a Wallace candidacy. Again, he took an aggressive poker-player's chance, and forced the Democrats to back down on the rider with his threat to veto the whole tax bill.
Partly with Wallace in mind, the President has done his best to finesse what may be the ugliest and most emotionally charged issue of the campaignthe issue of busing for racial balance. Here he has the Democrats at a disadvantage, for a liberal Democrat cannot oppose busing without risking his black constituency, and his liberal-intellectual constituency too. The liberal intellectuals are notably not a Nixon constituency, and neither are the blacks: "The blacks are not where our votes are," presidential aide John
Ehrlichman once remarked in a moment of candor.
Polls show whites opposing busing for racial balance by four-to-one or more, and even blacks split about even. Moreover, this is the guttiest kind of gut issue. While the liberal Democrats (except, perhaps Henry Jackson) have nervously straddled the issue, the President has ordered his subordinates to force the Supreme Court's busing edict "to the minimum required by law." This is a difficult finessea sort of double finesse, in factsince the unanimous Supreme Court ruling on busing was written by the President's own appointee as Chief Justice, Warren Burger, and since the President is sworn to enforce the law as interpreted by the Court. But on balance the political advantage clearly lies with Mr. Nixon.
Copyright © 1972 by Stewart Alsop. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1972; Nixon and the Square Majority: Is the Fox a Lion? - 72.02; Volume 229, No. 2; page 41-47.