The Magazine

Still the One

Nixon at 90.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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WE LIVE IN A FREE COUNTRY, thank God, so we are each of us entitled to celebrate Richard Nixon's birthday in our own way. Out in Yorba Linda, California, at the Nixon Library & Birthplace, the hardiest of the nation's merry-makers assembled on January 9 to toast the former president's 90th birthday with their annual "Victory of Freedom Gala." Other Americans celebrated quietly, surrounded by family and friends, while some preferred to be left alone, to gather their thoughts and memories. Still others chose not to mark the occasion at all, which is their right.

For myself, when the big day rolls around I like to drive out to suburban Maryland, to an annex of the National Archives called Archives II, where, in a fourth-floor room lined with towering gray filing cabinets, the Nixon tapes are stored. The tapes constitute one of the country's oddest historical artifacts--a portrait of a presidency, in second-by-second detail. There are 3,700 hours of tapes, recorded in the Oval Office and in Nixon's private White House hideaway between early 1969 and early 1973, touching on every subject from the China overture and Russian détente to Tricia Nixon's wedding and Bebe Rebozo's taste in movies. Of these conversations about 1,800 hours have so far been released for public listening, with many more scheduled to arrive over the next few years.

"We have people come by the busload, still," Karl Weissenbach, the tapes' curator, told me. They come to hear the Greatest Hits, of course--"Smoking Gun" and "Cancer on the Presidency," "I Want Brookings Cleaned Out" and "Did Mitchell Know?" and "We Could Get the Million Dollars (But It Would Be Wrong)"--but since these conversations can be readily downloaded from various Internet sites, most people come to chase Nixonian demons peculiar to themselves. The researchers, cranks, and hobbyists sit long hours at the gray metal desks, heads bent low in headphones, fingers stabbing the playback buttons on the cassette recorders, searching for this clue or that. "I've seen people sit through the entire eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap," Weissenbach said. "I guess they think they'll hear something no one else has."

I come tracking my own mystery. Ten years after Nixon's resignation, Alonzo Hamby, the historian and presidential biographer, began an essay on Nixon with the question, "Why did we hate him so?" The question is still open. By "we," of course, Hamby meant all right-thinkers, the liberal academics, artists, journalists, intellectuals, and wise persons, most of them gathered on the Eastern seaboard, who for a quarter century defined their political opinions in large part according to their contempt for Richard Nixon. The question "Why?" deepens as the years pass and the reflexive prejudices weaken, and what should have been obvious all along becomes undeniable: Nixon was the most liberal president of the past sixty years.

It should scarcely be necessary to prove the case any longer. He ended the draft and lowered the voting age and abandoned the kleptocrats of South Vietnam. He proposed a guaranteed family income and a nationalized health care system, instituted racial quotas and wage and price controls, and expanded the reach of the federal government with the EPA, OSHA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and half a dozen other alphabet agencies. He bussed the brutish Brezhnev and pumped the blood-caked hand of Mao with grinning enthusiasm, in the name of peace. Far from their worst nightmare, Nixon should have been the liberals' fondest dream. And yet they despised him just the same. Why?

Sometimes, on the fourth floor at Archives II, the fog begins to lift, and the answer suggests itself.

When I first met him, and I told him I was at the Archives to mark Nixon's birthday, Weissenbach, the curator, brought out a tray of tapes from a file cabinet and told me to choose at random. I plucked one from the box, slipped it into the cassette player, and strapped on the headphones.

The tape I chose records several midday meetings in the Oval Office on April 9, 1971. It opens in medias res, with the tail end of a conversation between the president and Paul McCracken, the chairman of his council of economic advisers. Evidently that morning's Washington Post had reported that McCracken was going to resign.

For much of this conversation, Nixon is listless, seeming bored as he so often was by domestic policy. But I soon discovered what all Nixon enthusiasts know: When you listen to the tapes, it never takes long for the exemplary, the essential, the ineradicable Nixon to manifest himself.

"So, we're settled on this thing," Nixon says suddenly on the tape, apparently having dissuaded McCracken from his intention to quit. The president picks up the phone to call his press secretary, Ron Ziegler.