Nixon and the Square Majority: Is the Fox a Lion?
He didn't "bring us together." Why does 1972 look like his year?
To 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 man—one 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.
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 Eisenhower—perhaps 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 square—he 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 clothing—if 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.
ALSOP: And you were embarrassed?
NIXON: Embarrassed? I turned fifteen colors of the rainbow. I suppose I came from a family too unmodern, really.
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 himself—middle-class squares.
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 income—a 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 Books—or, one suspects, of this magazine.
All 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 is—a 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 fan—he 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. Nixon—as to many millions of his fellow squares—the 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 start—that 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 professionals—Hubert Humphrey, for instance—believe 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.
Economic 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 decisive—the charge of flaccid inaction in the face of unemployment, inflation, and the international enfeeblement of the dollar—has 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 pollution—he 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 issue—universal 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 programs—a 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 rhetoric—rhetoric always means more to ideologues than real issues—and 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 strength—and the electoral college strength—of 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 squares—the 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 campaign—the 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 finesse—a sort of double finesse, in fact—since 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.
In all these ways (despite the bridge analogy), President has been playing political poker, playing it with cool competence. Here it is necessary to be fair, which it is sometimes difficult with Mr. Nixon, as it was with President Johnson. President Nixon certainly wants to go down in history as a good, and if possible a great, President, although with less anguished eagerness than the ill-starred Johnson. He is aware that the best way to do this is to do what is good for the country, and that this is also a good way to win re-election. These considerations certainly affected, to cite four examples, his decisions to initiate a controlled retreat from Vietnam, to establish contact with Peking, to reverse his economic policy, and to ask a minimum income for the poor. But there was really no more ideal passion in such moves than a good poker player might bring to a hard-played session of the game.
A British general, Sir Robert Thompson, remarked after an interview with Mr. Nixon that he was “America’s first professional President.” The remark may exaggerate the case, but there is something to it. Only the most passionate Nixonophiles—a rare breed—would claim that he has offered the country inspiring leadership. But at least he has so far avoided disaster, and at least his lack of ideological baggage has permitted him to do some things badly needed to be done—and spinach to Republican orthodoxy. In this writer’s opinion, he has been a better President than his long years as an aspirant to the presidency could have led a prudent man to expect. He has done a better job as a President than as a politician who wanted to be President.
Yet Mr. Nixon remains an eminently defeatable President. This is strange, for incumbent Presidents are very hard to beat—only two have been defeated in this century. It is easy to imagine another sort of man—Nelson Rockefeller, say—doing essentially the same things that Nixon has done, and having, by this time, such an armlock on the presidency as to make the Democratic nomination hardly worth accepting. The reason Richard Nixon does not have an armlock on the presidency is that he was not designed by God to be a politician. True, he is a brilliant politician in one sense: he has displayed great skill in using the powers of his office, plus his own lack of ideological baggage, to forestall and enfeeble the opposition. But that is only one function of a politician. The other function of a politician is to get people to like him, so that they will vote for him.
Most major politicians are likable fellows—if they hadn’t been, they would not have become politicians. Nixon went into politics the way other young men home from the wars went into construction, or merchandise, or whatever—for lack of anything better to do. If he had not answered the famous ad by the Whittier Republican Committee seeking a candidate to oppose Congressman Jerry Voorhis, Nixon might now be a fat-cat California lawyer.
Most politicians are born, whereas Richard Nixon is a made politician. He once remarked to me: “I just can’t be a buddy-buddy boy.” Natural politicians are buddy-buddy boys by instinct—they are bonhomous fellows, always ready with the smile and the slap on the back. Richard Nixon has never slapped a back in his life, and his smile often seems a difficult muscular exercise. He is so totally non-bonhomous that his small talk, as on that occasion at the Lincoln Memorial, can be agonizingly embarrassing. Nowadays, for ceremonial and social occasions at which a President is expected to display bonhomie, aides prepare the President suggested topics of meaningless versation plus a selection of small jokes.
Here we come back to the third and fourth odd fact about Mr. Nixon. His grandmother and his great-grandmother on the Milhous side were both successful and regionally famous lady preachers, who roamed the Midwest to preach the gospel and oppose sin (his grandmother, like Nelson Rockefeller’s, was a founder-member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union). This highly unusual genetic inheritance explains a lot about Nixon as politician.
Nixon belongs to the minority strain of the genus politicus Americanus—like Woodrow Wilson, he is of the preacher-politician strain. The genetically inspired urge to preach comes over him regularly. One was his televised broadcast explaining his decision to send troops into Cambodia. The first two thirds of the speech was a sensible explication of the military rationale of a rather minor military operation. But then the President’s distaff genes took over, and the last third of the speech was a self-righteous sermonette, in which the President compared his decision with the great decisions of Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, and offered up his own political future to the righteousness of his cause. He thus grossly inflated the significance of the operation, and ensured that the nationwide protest that duly ensued would be as bitter as possible.
This preachiness, this sense of his own righteousness is as genuine as his football obsession. It is far more genuine than those who see him only as Trick E. Dixon have ever recognized. The quality helps to explain why those who dislike him detest him so heartily. They are infuriated by what one senator calls his “goddamn holier-than-thou pose”—above all in a man they see as an aggressive and duplicitous politician. Yet it is important to realize that this sense of his own righteousness, which is part of his Quaker heritage, is perfectly real in Nixon.
So is his aggressiveness. Nixon is Irish on both sides, but from all accounts, his father belonged to the special breed of fighting, or Black, Irish. Those who recall Mr. Nixon Senior use words like “cantankerous,“ “aggressive,“ and “irritable” to describe him. Nixon himself has said that his father had “a hot temper,“ adding, “I learned early that the only way to deal with him was to abide by the rules he laid down. Otherwise, I would probably have felt the touch of a ruler or a strap as my brothers did.”
Nixon is his father’s son. “When I am attacked,“ he once told me, “my instinct is to strike back.” He has a compulsion to accept a challenge, however politically unwise it may be to do so. In 1960, he was certainly unwise to accept the challenge to debate with the much less well known Kennedy. A more recent example was his decision to go to Miami in November to play Daniel in the den of the labor-union lions gathered for the AFL-CIO Convention.
His advisers unanimously urged him not to go, to send instead some bland message of appeasement to Miami; adviser George Shultz, it is said, almost went down on his knees to beg Nixon not to go. But the President’s Irish blood was up. He had been attacked, and rather brutally attacked, by George Meany, and his “instinct to strike back” prevailed.
There are those—and there are plenty of labor men among them—who are sure that this was a typical ploy by that duplicitous fellow, Trick E. Dixon, playing for sympathy and putting labor on the spot. Labor’s treatment of “the President of all the people” did annoy a lot of the people, and the episode may have been worth a point or two in the polls. But it was bad long-run politics all the same.
Labor’s enthusiasm for most of the liberal Democrats, including Nixon’s most likely opponent in 1972 (whom George Meany refers to as “Shmuskie”), is pallid in the extreme. By no stretch of the imagination would labor have supported Richard Nixon in 1972. But labor might not have fought him very hard—and that could have made all the difference. Labor’s belated effort to go all out for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 came amazingly close to electing Humphrey. Now the President can be sure of one thing: the labor men, who are furiously angry, will go all out for his opponent, whatever his name—even if his name is John Lindsay, Meany’s most unfavorite candidate. Labor’s undying enmity is a big political price for the President to pay for giving his Black Irish “instinct to strike back” a run in the yard.
The plain fact is that the President is not really a very good politician when he is playing the essential role of the politician-as-candidate. In his younger days as a candidate, his “instinct to strike back” led him to stage what he called “rocking, socking” campaigns. In these campaigns he was quite capable of striking back before he was struck, and striking some very low blows into the bargain.
The low blows consisted of scoring sleazy debating tricks off his opponents. Any Nixonologist can produce a long list of low blows from the early Nixon period. A prime example is the question he asked, ostensibly in a spontaneous aside, in a television broadcast in the 1954 campaign: “And isn’t it grand at last to have a Secretary of State who isn’t taken in by the Communists?” This oblique attack, of course, was directed at Dean Acheson and George Marshall. It had all the earmarks of the classic Nixon low blow—a rhetorical question, delivered with carefully calculated spontaneity, suggesting a falsehood without actually stating it.
There are plenty of other examples of Nixon’s tendency in those days to “make the worse appear the better reason,“ notably in the famous “Checkers Speech.” As in that speech, the technique of suggestio falsi could be highly effective temporarily. But again, it was bad politics. It left a bad taste in the mouths of many uncommitted voters who might otherwise have voted for Nixon, and that bad taste was certainly one major reason why Nixon missed the White House in 1960.
Nixon is not a fool. As he grew older and wiser, he came to realize that although those “rocking, socking” attacks might win him the plaudits of the committed, the bad taste in so many uncommitted mouths was bad politics. After about 1956, it is hard to find a really vintage Nixonism, though there have been occasional echoes. His 1968 campaign consisted largely of distaff-style sermonettes, with very little rocking or socking. The result was blandness, with cosmetic touches supplied by his retinue of P.R. experts. By November—as a result of national tedium—he had almost completely lost his big early lead.
The fact is that as a candidate for office, Nixon has consistently been a thoroughly second-rate politician. He is a second-rate politician simply because he is not a natural politician, because he was made, not born. It took an amazing concatenation of circumstances, from Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal to Rockefeller’s tergiversations to Humphrey’s disaster at the hands of the left in Chicago, to make him President. But Richard Nixon is President, and there is a vast difference between the situation of a politician who has not been elected President and wants to be, and a politician who already is President and wants to go on being President. It is an old rule of American politics that the best way to get elected President is to be President already.
Being President already is an even bigger asset to Richard Nixon than it is to most Presidents. As President, Nixon doesn’t have to try to be a buddy-buddy boy anymore—and he doesn’t try. “The dignity of the presidency is a very big thing with him,“ says an aide. ”Even before he was inaugurated, the word went out that we were always to wear a coat and tie in his presence. And of course we still do.“
One of the President’s favorite passages is General de Gaulle’s disquisition in his autobiography on the need for a national leader to maintain distance, mystery, and aloofness. Richard Nixon is no De Gaulle, but he clearly enjoys the distance the office of the presidency puts between him and other people.
“None of us is really close to him,” says an aide. “He’s like a polite but distant hermit—he emerges every once in a while from his cave, blinks in the light, and then goes back in again. There’s a kind of inwardness about the man.”
Nixon likes guarding his own inwardness: he feels comfortable with himself, according to those who see him daily, and more and more so as the years of presidency have passed and no great disaster has overtaken him. He feels now bien dans sa peau (“well in his skin”), as the French say, in a way that he never did during his long, hard crawl to the top. The Bible warns that a man cannot, by taking thought, add a cubit to his stature. But there is one way a man can add a cubit to his stature—by getting elected President.
Nixon clearly hopes to add another cubit by getting re-elected, this time by a safe majority, and presiding triumphantly over the American bicentennial. He remains a defeatable incumbent, essentially because he is so unnatural a politician and therefore so unlovable a public figure. But most political pros, Democrats included, would give him a slightly better-than-even chance to be re-elected. In that case, we are likely to find out at last what manner of man this odd and idiosyncratic person really is. Perhaps we will find out even before next November.
Except for Dwight Eisenhower, a lucky man, every President in recent history has faced his testing time. If Richard Nixon serves a full eight years, his seems almost mathematically sure to come. It could come abroad, of course, in a confrontation with the Soviets in the Middle East or elsewhere. It seems more likely to come at home. And it seems most likely to involve the centrifugal force which is operating so powerfully in this country.
“What has been pulling us apart?“ Daniel Patrick Moynihan asked in his leaked memorandum to the President. “One wishes one knew.” Mr. Moynihan’s answer is hardly satisfactory, but his question is the central question that confronts the country.
American society has always been fragile. Europeans who talk about American “conformism” have been exposed only to a small minority of such racial and social diversity, and the country’s very bigness and industrial complexity add always to the threat of internal conflict. Indeed, except in rare moments of a universally perceived external threat, as after Pearl Harbor, the United States has never achieved more than a surface appearance of unity. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps the two greatest Presidents in our history, both presided over a nation rent and riven by disunity.
The United States is not going to turn into one big happy family, even when the Vietnam tragedy is at last behind us. The danger is that the pulling-apart process may get out of hand, and that the President, whom Walter Lippmann once described as a naturally divisive politician, will be tempted to encourage and exploit the process.
The liberal intellectuals of academia and the media are for the most part isolated from certain harsh realities of American politics. It comes as a shock to them when, for example, the 1968 polls show the public overwhelmingly in favor of Mayor Daley’s cops and against “the kids” in Chicago; or when a Newsweek poll shows the public blaming the students rather than the National Guard for the Kent State tragedy by a margin of three to one; or when the evidence mounts that both busing for purposes of racial balance in schools and “scatter housing” are so bitterly unpopular among middle-class whites as to risk widespread violence.
The people who favored Daley’s cops or blamed students at Kent State or march in protest against busing or housing projects are, by and large, Mr. Nixon’s people. They are part of the square majority which is his natural constituency, and which he intends to grapple to his bosom with hoops of steel.
Mind you, it is the object of the great game to seek a majority, and when Franklin Roosevelt, for example, was seeking his majority, he was not particularly forebearing toward the “money changers in the temple” and his other favorite enemies. It is silly to expect a Republican President to talk and behave like a liberal Democrat, as so many liberal Democratic commentators seem to expect him to do. Moreover, Richard Nixon has been a better politician-as-President than his record as a politician-as-candidate might have led one to expect.
And yet … and yet. One senses that a time may be coming when the fragile political and social structure of this country may be threatened as rarely before, and however fair one may wish to be, it is impossible not to worry about how Mr. Nixon might react to such a crisis, especially if he himself were in political trouble. There is that lack of any deep ideological commitment, that instinctive conviction that to win is everything. There is the self-righteousness, the genetic urge to preach, the “instinct to strike back.”
Especially if the economy began to go really sour, and he himself were under bitter attack from the left, the President would be subjected to a powerful temptation to exploit the furies and frustrations of the square majority by directing that majority’s wrath against the unsquare minority. It may be said that he has done so already, notably in the 1970 campaign. But in general, as President, he has played within the very flexible rules of the political game.
To an extent astonishing in retrospect, a mere senator—Joe McCarthy—almost tore the country apart when he refused to play by the rules of the game in exploiting the fears and frustrations of the square majority. Vice President Richard Nixon, after all, never repudiated or even criticized McCarthy, and there is enough McCarthyism of the left to give him self-righteous excuses for playing the game the same way. A President who played that sort of game might break the whole American structure apart.
“The prince must be a lion,“ Machiavelli wrote, “but he must also know how to play the fox.” Mr. Nixon knows how to play the fox, all right. This is not said in denigration—to lead this stubborn country, a President must also be a shrewd and sometimes duplicitous politician. Lincoln and Roosevelt were among the shrewdest and most duplicitous.
The question remains: Can the fox also play the lion? In the time of domestic crisis that may lie ahead, can the President summon up in himself the large-mindedness and courage to withstand the opportunity to exploit the centrifugal force in our society to his own advantage, and instead to make whatever political sacrifice may be necessary to control the process which threatens the fragile American political and social structure?
No one can make any firm prediction, of course. But my own instinct is that the answer to that question would almost certainly be “yes”—if Mr. Nixon had once been safely re-elected to a second and last term. Then Richard Nixon would never have to worry again about being a buddy-buddy boy or maneuvering for the votes of people who do not much like him. The danger is in the immediate future, in the coming campaign. If the election is close, and Mr. Nixon senses that he is in deep trouble, then the country could be in deep trouble too.
President Nixon’s testing time, in short, may be in the presidential election months which lie immediately ahead. Indeed, his time of testing may have started already. If so, it will be interesting to see whether this strange man can bring himself to realize that the point of the game is not always only to win.