But wasn't he definitely a crook, though?
March 1, 2019 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Is there an entire mirror universe I wasn't aware of composed of people who think Richard Nixon did nothing wrong?

As a child of the 80s who grew up in the 90s, my assumption has always been that the general feeling everywhere in America has been that Nixon definitely did wrong/was a "crook", rightfully got caught at it, congress was right to impeach, Nixon was right to resign (and Ford was maybe wrong to pardon him), and the entire Watergate saga/Nixon's specific behavior was a permanent stain on the country and the presidency. The narrative, as far as I've been able to tell, has always been that Watergate was bad because Nixon was bad. I picked this up via osmosis, growing up in a post-Watergate mainstream culture. (For the record my parents are politically moderate, but I grew up in a red state surrounded by conservatives. Also my parents are moderate, like, for a red state.)

Then, as background to everything that's been going on with Trump, I was reading this Politico article about Roger Stone. The writer of this article seems to believe that Nixon and his people didn't do anything wrong or even unusual (it even refers to ratfucking as "penny ante dirty tricks"), and that Watergate was just so much partisan whingeing. Granted, it's an article about Roger Stone, who seems to be a true believer in Nixon as victim (and, yeah, I've also seen Get Me Roger Stone). And the author of the article has also written a Nixon biography, so maybe he's more sympathetic to the guy than most. And, hell, Politico isn't exactly a liberal rag.

But the way "everybody did that stuff/Nixon did nothing wrong" was just slipped in there as if it's an agreed-upon truism kind of blew my mind. Like... I thought that, with the exception of a few partisan cranks, we were all on the same page about Nixon being corrupt?

Is there a significant proportion of the country (not just fringey far-right types) that thinks, to this day, that Nixon got unfair treatment, that the Watergate hearings shouldn't have happened, and that the entire thing was made up by the liberal media?

For the record, I have listened to the "Slow Burn" podcast episode about how Nixon's supporters felt during the Watergate hearings. I'm aware that the guy was elected twice, and the second time by an almost unheard of landslide, and that at least prior to Watergate, a lot of people liked him. This is a question about the post-Watergate world and the collective narrative about what Watergate and Richard Nixon mean now.
posted by the milkman, the paper boy to Law & Government (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think this universe definitely exists, but it exists in a more general sense as the category of people who believe that when a Republican does something questionable it's perfectly ok and normal or perhaps a necessary evil at worst, but when a Democrat does a similar thing it's a heinous act, criminal and likely treasonous.
posted by theory at 12:46 PM on March 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think the sentiment I encounter is less "Nixon, specifically, did OK things and he was right to do them," and more "politicians are so thoroughly corrupt that it makes no sense to single out Nixon as somehow worse than all the others, and you're naive if you think Nixon actually did worse things than anyone else."
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:49 PM on March 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Here's a 2014 poll from YouGov, taken on the 40th anniversary of his resignation. It also compares the numbers to 1999, the 25th anniversary. Here are the important quotes:
New YouGov research shows that most Americans still think that Nixon's actions were serious enough to warrant his resignation, but that this has decreased in the past fifteen years. In a 1999 poll by Gallup, 72% of Americans said that his actions were serious enough to warrant his resignation, while 23% said that they weren't. Today, 59% think that it was serious enough to warrant resignation and 16% say that it isn't [sic], with the percentage of Americans expressing 'no opinion' increasing from 5% to 25%. ...

Most of the American public (51%) believe that Nixon's actions regarding Watergate were 'no more or less serious' than the actions taken by other recent presidents. A third of the public say that his crimes were particularly serious, and 15% think that his actions were less serious than those of other presidents.

Most Democrats (52%) think that his actions were particularly serious compared to those of other presidents, while most Republicans (55%) think that his actions were no more or less serious than those taken by other American presidents. 59% of Independents agree that Nixon's crimes were not unusual for Presidents to have committed.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:50 PM on March 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

One of my school teachers thought he was railroaded out of office and basically our greatest president ever. He was 35, and this was the 1980s.
posted by tilde at 12:57 PM on March 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

The "it was all made up by the liberal media" thing is not a sentiment I've heard outside of the fringe.

Funny enough I have noticed in the years since Trump's election that in my circles, opinions of Nixon have gotten LOWER. Like, now it seems to be accepted understanding that he was quite bumbling and terrible at Presidenting, in addition to being a crook. Which, I don't think that actually tracks, like, at all.

I wonder if what's happening is that Nixon has now been compared with Trump, and vice versa, so frequently that people are starting to think the same things about both of them. So if you think Trump is an embattled hero beset by Democrats, you now tend to think the same of Nixon. And if you think Trump is fundamentally incapable of leading, you apply that gloss to Nixon as well.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:57 PM on March 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

It strikes me as the 70s equivalent of "whatabout Benghazi, ACORN, unmasking, Uranium One, Fast & Furious, IRS-gate, her emails," etc. Pointing to controversies on the other side of the aisle, real or (more usually) imagined in order to distract or excuse one's own conduct. Not really surprising coming from people directly involved with Watergate crimes (or those writing sympathetic articles about them today).

As for why it never seemed prevalent to you, that's because Watergate took place in a less cynical era of trusted media outlets operating under the Fairness Doctrine, when congressional Republicans were capable of being shamed by the media and the public into holding their own accountable. In fact, the experience of Watergate and similar political skunkworks is what led Nixon acolytes to lay the groundwork for Fox News, specifically so they could have a national media platform designed to spin, distract from, and undermine unfavorable news coverage about Republican administrations. The Jacob Wohls and James O'Keefes of the 1970s are the Walter Cronkites of today, at least as far as the GOP base is concerned.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:58 PM on March 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

I suppose I should have said "blown all out of proportion by the liberal media" and not "made up by...". But even so, great answers all around!

The odd thing, to me, is that the author of the Politico piece doesn't seem to be a known right-wing operative. He's a former Boston Globe Washington correspondent who was nominated for a Pulitzer last year for his Nixon biography.
posted by the milkman, the paper boy at 1:08 PM on March 1, 2019

Ben Stein (who has tremendous bias as he was Nixon's speechwriter) says that Nixon was railroaded out of office for no good reason.

From Wikipedia:
"In 2005, Stein said in the American Spectator:

Can anyone even remember now what Nixon did that was so terrible? He ended the war in Vietnam, brought home the POWs, ended the war in the Mideast, opened relations with China, started the first nuclear weapons reduction treaty, saved Eretz Israel's life, started the Environmental Protection Agency. Does anyone remember what he did that was bad?

Oh, now I remember. He lied. He was a politician who lied. How remarkable. He lied to protect his subordinates who were covering up a ridiculous burglary that no one to this date has any clue about its purpose. He lied so he could stay in office and keep his agenda of peace going. That was his crime. He was a peacemaker and he wanted to make a world where there was a generation of peace. And he succeeded.

That is his legacy. He was a peacemaker. He was a lying, conniving, covering up peacemaker. He was not a lying, conniving drug addict like JFK, a lying, conniving war starter like LBJ, a lying, conniving seducer like Clinton—a lying, conniving peacemaker.[12]"

He also claims that if Nixon had stayed in office he would have prevented the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (non-specific as to how) so he says that Mark Felt, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee have the genocide of the Cambodian people on their conscience.
posted by vunder at 1:16 PM on March 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

John Dean: I Testified Against Nixon. Here’s My Advice for Michael Cohen. (NYT Opinion)
Polls varied widely after my testimony. One said 50 percent of Americans believed me, 30 percent did not, and 20 percent were not sure. Another poll had 38 percent believing the president, who denied my statement, and 37 percent believing me. [...]

Mr. Cohen should understand that if Mr. Trump is removed from office, or defeated in 2020, in part because of his testimony, he will be reminded of it for the rest of his life. He will be blamed by Republicans but appreciated by Democrats. If he achieves anything short of discovering the cure for cancer, he will always live in this pigeonhole. How do I know this? I am still dealing with it.

Just as Mr. Nixon had his admirers and apologists, so it is with Mr. Trump. Some of these people will forever be rewriting history, and they will try to rewrite it at Mr. Cohen’s expense. They will put words in his mouth that he never spoke. They will place him at events at which he wasn’t present and locations where he has never been. Some have tried rewriting my life, and they will rewrite his too.

I am thinking of people like Mr. Stone, the longtime Trump associate who worked on the 1972 Nixon campaign and so admires the former president that he has a tattoo of the man’s likeness between his shoulder blades. [...] Mr. Cohen can be sure that Mr. Stone will promote new conspiracy theories to defend Mr. Trump and himself, even if it means rewriting history. Presidential scandals tend to attract a remarkable number of dishonest “historians.”
posted by Little Dawn at 2:53 PM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, I just read the Politico article and didn't get the same impression of it that you did. I think that some of what you read as the author's opinion, I read as his characterization of Stone's opinion. I would be surprised if the author truly felt that "Nixon and his people didn't do anything wrong" and "Watergate was just so much partisan whingeing". I could certainly be mistaken, though.
posted by dfan at 2:55 PM on March 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

My uncle is one of these people! I think he was an intern or a field staffer or something like that for Nixon at one point, and he was very strident that Nixon wasn't a bad president. I get the sense he thinks that a lot of what Nixon accomplished is covered up/neglected. I think he'd agree strongly with that Ben Stein quote. But yeah, these people have definitely always been around.

(He now has a libertarian podcast, and we don't see that side of the family too much.)
posted by kalimac at 7:10 PM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

nthing that this is absolutely a thing. Remember Nixon was the sort of prototypical "It's not the crime, it's the cover up" politician, especially in the public mind. I think even a decent number of moderates, while definitely not approving of the underlying deeds, king of felt that if they hadn't been uncovered they would've been fine.

it even refers to ratfucking as "penny ante dirty tricks"

I had some issues with the article OTOH I think that is a pretty good definition of ratfucking. Writing a fake letter to the editor or making a donation on behalf of socialists or homosexuals are pretty penny ante. The Watergate break-in and cover up went beyond ratfucking.

But also one big issue with Nixon is his ratfuckers reported almost directly to him and were semi-official. I'm pretty sure Adlai Stevenson didn't get the details when his guys pulled tricks.
posted by mark k at 8:29 PM on March 1, 2019

I think this "maybe Nixon was fine" is a bit of retroactive excusing. Like you I generally consider Nixon and the Watergate scandal as a, like, textbook example of a rotten crook of a politician. I think that a broad swath of the American public thought so at the time; he resigned because the prevailing public opinion was that the coverup/dirty tricks was un-American and unbecoming of the president in a way that the modern public just doesn't share. Add to this the hyperpartisanship of the modern era and people are willing to retroactively forgive Nixon because of some combination of (1) he's a Republican therefore on Our Team and (2) his overreaching/missteps are practically quaint by modern standards (esp. in the Trump era).
posted by axiom at 8:33 PM on March 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a feeling if the internet and discourse as it is today existed during Nixon’s presidency it would have definitely helped his fans and apologists form and articulate their feelings and points of view on this and even increase their ranks. The press and zeitgeist at the time would likely never have elevated that view in any way, so it stayed “fringe”. I think people who think what he did was “ok” are almost non existent and probably always were, but the people who believe that all politics is this way (see “swamp, drain the”) and therefore at least it’s someone with their views doing it on their behalf this time is the view that’s held by a scant few, in proportion to the average American view. But there are a lot of Americans so there are a lot of actual people who might actually feel that way. I think LBJ’s shady ass behavior didn’t help at all in building this world view, but if people talked about it the press didn’t read about it and the media didn’t publish many books or documentaries about it.

I grew up fascinated by the Nixon administration because my parents met during the hearings and they talked about it constantly. They definitely had the prevailing view that you speak of, that Nixon was the WORST MAN, and so did everyone I spoke to about it growing up. But I remember hearing the line “Now Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you?” in Sweet Home Alabama, and learning about how that song was an acidic response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, and meeting right wing types of the day who definitely would fit today’s profile of a MAGA fan, and the standard feeling was Nixon was a liar and a cheat, yeah, but them’s the breaks and at least he ended the war and respected “real” (read: white) Americans, unlike the greedy, hypocritical and at best naively idealistic liberals.

The Nixon administration in particular relied heavily on mouthpieces who spoke for them to the white supremacist working class without actually speaking for them. Martha Mitchell, wife of John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, would call reporters and say outrageously racist things, so nobody in an actual position to be criticised for it would get the blowback, but they’d still get the warm glow of clearly being in the club of white supremacy. So there was, I think, a general code that had people thinking in a Machiavellian way, that rules might be being broken but it was in service to a greater... advantage. In a world where maybe there isn’t much good (according to that world view).

I think the contingent of people who feel this way is probably proportionally the same to how it was back then, but now our cultural world view places much more value on every opinion, and our zeitgest is comprised of every loud voice, some of them earnest, some altruistically aligned but angling to manipulate, and others who are benefiting somehow from the discord. Johnny Cash’s “What Is Truth” was written explicitly to be performed for Nixon in an epic country punk rock singing truth to power moment, and it couldn’t be more apt today.

I also think there was an air of opportunity around Nixon, and once he was embarrassed by those tapes it had passed. By stepping down he admitted, however tacitly, that he was in the wrong, and so the conversation was over. I don’t think we will get that this time around.

Whenever I feel like what’s happening now is political end times, i just crack a book on Nixon and am reminded that this situation is just that same one on steroids. Or perhaps more accurately, all growed up after a period of under the radar growth aided by an entire culture that thought it was just an errant moment in American history, rather than a foundational contingent of our electorate. I don’t feel better, exactly, but I do feel more equipped to navigate the situation intellectually and emotionally.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:38 AM on March 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

My take is that Republicanism parallels conservative Christianity as sort of a civic religion. As such, it is preoccupied with a perception of being persecuted. Nixon has evolved into one of it’s martyrs.
posted by coldhotel at 6:24 AM on March 2, 2019

Actually Nixon assisted with this "perception of being persecuted" but it's right out of the right-wing/fascist playbook. See the excellent Nasty People for how Hitler played the victim card.
posted by Rash at 10:55 AM on March 2, 2019

There are scandals that happened in the intervening years (Iran-Contra, Iraq, likely the current situation) that make Watergate look like No Big Deal, so that's a factor helping the rehabilitation of Nixon.
posted by KazamaSmokers at 8:11 PM on March 2, 2019

My dad always said, whenever it came up, that the only thing Nixon did wrong was to get caught.

That said, aside from the whole Watergate debacle, he was also probably guilty of treason by working behind the smoke and mirrors before the 1968 election to prolong the Viet Nam war until after the election so he could get the credit for ending it. These activities were known to Lyndon Johnson at the time but he couldn't say anything about it since he knew it because the NSA and CIA were the ones who told him about it and it was illegal for them to have been spying on American citizens. A lot of stuff has come out about all his shenanigans in the past decade or so as participants at the time have come out with their own memoirs, like Dean, mentioned above.

An excellent biography of Nixon lays out all this stuff, "Richard Nixon: The Life", by John Farrell, 1971.
posted by qurlyjoe at 8:42 PM on March 2, 2019

Kazama Smokers, one of the things that is causing me to have this whiplash is that I just finished All The President's Men, which, despite its self-congratulatory tone and being probably the foundation myth of the Nixon Was Evil narrative, also provided a lot of context for why it wasn't just some ex-frat boys playing dirty tricks but, in fact, using the power and resources of the White House to influence an election.

In school -- while I was picking up the background noise of Nixon Sux by osmosis -- I learned that the whole thing was over a break-in. Which, yeah, seems like a total nothingburger. Except that the break-in was just the catalyst. The actual thing people were angry about was the partisan hack election-rigging. So the ability for people who weren't there at the time to rehabilitate Nixon via "both sides do it" or "what he did wasn't that bad" makes a degree of sense to me. But also, like... didn't we all also inhale the Nixon The Crook oxygen together? That's the bit that continues to blow my mind.

Anyway, great answers all around. This has given me a lot of food for thought. Thanks, all!
posted by the milkman, the paper boy at 9:56 AM on March 4, 2019

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