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.
"Ron, get this word out: This report in the Washington Post is completely erroneous. Completely. You tell those guys, Chairman McCracken has complete confidence in the president and in the president's policies. Got that? Go to it."
You hear the phone slam down. "That takes care of that," he says. "We can't take any crap from these people, Paul. Am I right? Sometimes you got to just stand up and kick 'em in the teeth."
McCracken departs and Nixon is joined by his aide Al Haig and his former Treasury secretary, David Kennedy, who has come to brief the president on his recent tour of Asia. Kennedy's account drags on and Nixon responds monosyllabically, until Kennedy mentions some trouble with the U.S. State Department and the Agency for International Development. On the tape there's an eruption.
"Goddammit, Al, I told them I wanted that AID budget cut! It's not the money, it's the personnel. Get those bastards out of there! You got all these young whippersnappers [actual word--Ed.] running around Asia knocking our policies. Get. Them. Out. Of. There."
"Yes, sir!" Haig says. "Should have been done already!"
"I'll tell you, we got to break some china around here. We need hard-headed, tough guys, not this usual State Department way of doing things. All these guys over there--they're weak. They go to these goddamn Eastern Ivy League schools and they're not pro-American."
Here I should stress again that this tape was taken at random, from a box selected at random, though there were moments when I thought Weissenbach was pulling a gag, slipping a Rich Little tape into the machine.
But no. Kennedy goes on to mention unflattering reports he'd heard about Peace Corps volunteers.
Nixon's feet hit the floor. "Goddamn them, Al! That's another thing I told those bastards to cut! I've never seen a place where the Peace Corps was worth a damn. Am I right? Oh sure, it's great for the kids. They're going to a nice Eastern college, they want a nice little vacation. Well, send them to the goddamn Congo then!"
The next meeting that morning concerned the arts.
Nixon's presidency was the most generous ever enjoyed by the arts establishment in the United States. Representing that establishment in the administration were Nixon's old law partner Leonard Garment and, preeminently, Nancy Hanks, a former director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and thus, ex officio, a life member of the Eastern Establishment.
On the tape, Nixon says he wants to talk about the film industry.
"Now, Nancy, it turns out, 52 percent of the movies we see here in the United States were made abroad. What I want to do is find a way to keep these damn foreign movies out. Oh, I know they're supposed to be so damn great and so forth. To tell you the truth, I don't see many movies. Saw 'Love Story.' 'Patton.' But my point is, I will not have America slip to number two in the world when it comes to movies."
Mrs. Hanks protests that the popularity of foreign movies is owing to their superior quality.
"Well, then, here's what I want you to do. I want you to take it to the movie industry. You tell 'em, You've got to start producing good movies. Say: No more of this weird stuff! Shape up!
"The family movie is coming back, you know. People don't like arty. They don't like offbeat.
"But the film industry, they're trying to reflect the intelligentsia"--the word drips with venom--"and that is their big mistake. Following the intelligentsia is where they always go wrong. Look at these film schools today. All they do is the weird stuff. They produce weird movies. They produce weird people."
But Hanks and Garment have come to talk not about the movies but about the government's grandest current project for the arts, the construction of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Museum on the National Mall.
"Is this going to be some of that--that modern art?" Nixon asks suspiciously.
"It is, Mr. President," Mrs. Hanks replies, in her Rockefeller voice. "It's one of the finest collections of modern sculpture in the world." In the wuld.
"Oh yeah?" Silence. Then: "Don't let it be one of those horrible modern buildings, all right? 'Cause if it is, we're not going to do it."
Garment and Hanks try to explain that the plans have already been approved.
Nixon's voice deepens. "I will not have the Mall desecrated with one of those horrible goddamn modern atrocities like they have in New York with that, what is it, that Whitney thing. Jesus H. Christ. If it looks like that, it--will--not--happen."
"And I don't want 'controversial,' either. All right? Now this list for the board or whatever. Am I stuck with these names?"
Garment assures him the list for the museum's board of directors can still be changed.
"Good. I'm taking all the Easterners off of here. Got that? Every single one. And this name--what's--some Harvard name. Know him. Part of the Eastern Establishment. Rich guy, but he'll never lift a finger to help us. Well, the hell with him. Am I right?"
Nixon mentions names of California donors he would like placed on the Hirshhorn board.
"Just put 'em on the list," he says. "I mean, why not? Think they'll make the thing a disaster? They can't make it a disaster because it's a disaster already!"
"No, no, Mr. President," Mrs. Hanks scolds. "It will not be a disaster!"
"Oh, come on, Nancy," Nixon says quietly. "I've seen the plans."
"Well," he says at last, "I wash my hands of the damn thing. Just make sure I don't have to see it when I look out this window."
And there it is: an entire administration in miniature, the capitulation of the tough-talking Republican. The damn building got built, of course, and the Hirshhorn is indeed an atrocity, as Nixon knew it would be, rising up on the Mall without windows or warmth, poured from dun-colored concrete in the shape of a giant automotive air filter.
Why did they hate him so? "They" did get their building, after all, and so much else from him, too. A few hours in the tape room at Archives II, though, makes the answer plain: They hated him because he hated them. Deep as it was, the hatred wasn't about politics. It cut much closer to the vitals--into culture, disposition, class, I'm not sure what to call it. One of Nixon's legacies indeed is to demonstrate the puniness of politics, its relative insignificance in the larger scheme of what moves men to do what they do. His enemies knew he wasn't one of them, and though he may have tried to buy their trust with every kind of political concession, Nixon knew it too. He hated them for it and vice versa. And the hatred, both his and theirs, is what did him in at the end, as he also knew.
But who hated whom first--Nixon or the liberals? The answer to that chicken-and-egg question is probably untraceable at this late date, and out of order in any case, as we wish the old man's shade a happy birthday, despite everything.
Andrew Ferguson is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for Bloomberg News.