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Richard Nixon Left America a Better Place Than He Found It

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Having allowed the centenary of Richard Nixon's birth to pass without published comment, because I had risen to his defence in one place and another several times recently, I was stung to self-reproach by the elegantly expressed birthday greetings of my friend Taki Theodoracopulos in The Spectator. Taki described him (Mr. Nixon's one hundredth birthday was on January 9) as the greatest president since Washington and Jefferson. He was not, in fact, as great a president as Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or probably his fellow-Californian, Ronald Reagan. But he was surely a greater president that Jefferson, who sent Lewis and Clark west, picked up the Louisiana Purchase when Napoleon dropped it into his lap, and imposed suicidal trade restrictions on Britain over that country's outrages on the high seas, provocations Britain would not have dared commit had Jefferson not disbanded the army Washington and Adams maintained as a threat against Canada in the event of British high-handedness. Jefferson dismissed the takeover of Canada as "a mere matter of marching," but demobilized those who would make the march, and when his chosen successor, Madison, attempted the march, the British and Canadians gave him a well-deserved thrashing and burned down Washington (despite a distinguished American naval performance and Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans after the War of 1812 had actually ended).

Taki also takes liberties in claiming Nixon was the dominant political figure in America in the forties and fifties, and had the greatest landslide in history. Roosevelt and Eisenhower were the giants of those earlier decades and Roosevelt and Johnson, and by some measure Reagan, had slightly greater victories in 1936, 1964, and 1984. But Taki is absolutely right to contrast Hillary Clinton's clueless in Gaza approach to the Middle East to the genius of Nixon and Kissinger; and to make the point that Nixon was an advocate of civil rights in the fifties when the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson still thought of African-Americans as railway porters and shoe-shine boys; and that Nixon never accepted a fee for a speech (nor did Truman, Eisenhower, or Johnson), while Clinton and Blair and the Bushes have enriched themselves in consideration of their former offices in, to say the least, unseemly ways. And he is right to quote Nick Carraway's last words to Jay Gatsby, that he was better than all those who had reviled him combined. These two salient facts, Nixon's merits as president and the worthless and self-serving hypocrisy of most of his adversaries, are creating an inexorably wider recognition of Nixon's historic standing.

All one need do is contemplate the condition of the United States when Nixon entered and departed the presidential office: In 1969 there were 550,000 draftees in Vietnam with no official clue of what they were doing there, and 200 to 400 returning each week to America in body bags. In 1966, when Lyndon Johnson had offered Ho Chi Minh the phased departure from South Vietnam of all foreign troops, all Ho needed to do was accept the offer, and return in overwhelming strength six months after the Americans had gone; he would not even do that because of his confidence that he could defeat the United States, with the encouragement of China and the U.S.S.R. Nixon withdrew entirely, obtained a peace agreement, and trained the South Vietnamese to the point that they won the ground war in 1972 without assistance, other than from the air, from the U.S. He preserved a non-communist government in Saigon and abolished the draft. Where in 1969 there were no relations with China or the major Arab powers, and no substantive discussions in progress with the USSR, Nixon opened relations with China, with immense positive consequences for that country and the world, started a peace process in the Middle East (that his recent successors have largely failed to continue), and signed with the Soviet Union the greatest arms control agreement in history. Nixon stopped the rioting, stopped inflation, the assassinations stopped, and he founded the Environmental Protection Agency. It is a record of achievement that puts him very close to the nation's greatest presidents. It easily bears comparison with Theodore Roosevelt's building of the Panama Canal, attack on J.P. Morgan's financial empire, and promotion of conservation, or with Harry Truman's Marshall Plan and NATO and defense of Korea, and surpasses the considerable presidential accomplishments of Jackson, Wilson, or Eisenhower.

And Nixon's critics appear ever more contemptible. The approved biography of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee acknowledges that Bradlee did not believe what Woodward and Bernstein were reporting about Watergate (which did not prevent him from collecting his Pulitzer Prize for it), and Woodward has committed savage violence to his post-Watergate credibility, not least by publishing details of a conversation with former CIA director William Casey that a former CIA security officer insists was "fabricated," in which Casey conveniently confessed his guilt in the Iran-Contra affair. (Many others have also questioned whether the alleged conversation with Casey occurred as reported by Woodward, including Casey's widow.) The advisors Johnson inherited from Kennedy pushed him into Vietnam, and then ran out the back door into the tall grass and destroyed the leader they themselves had misled. Then they crucified Nixon for saving their war, and demanded, received, and for 40 years have basked in, the self-generated praise for destroying a distinguished president and snatching defeat from the mouth of victory in a war in which 57,000 Americans died. It is now clear that the counts of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee in the frenzied summer of 1974 were false. While Nixon bungled the investigation and needlessly squandered his political capital, the only count with the remotest possibility of being accurate is that he approved advancing money to Howard Hunt to encourage altered testimony. And it would be very difficult to prove that in a fair trial in a serious court, or that such a process could then have been found. His accusers are liars, mountebanks, and bloodless assassins, and the country has paid a terrible price in the discrediting of government and the media, and, except for the Indian summer of Reagan, in mediocre or poor, and recently dysfunctional government ever since.

I've written this before, but I am grateful to Taki for a timely reminder to observe the centenary of a great American with some recollections that bear repetition. While I am at it (defending presidents of whom I have written thick biographies), I would like to debunk the theory that has arisen again that Franklin D. Roosevelt was derelict in assisting the Jews in the thirties and in the war. Roosevelt intensely disapproved of anti-Semitism, and required that the anti-Semitic laws of French North Africa be repealed after the American occupation of Algeria and Morocco in 1942. He admitted about 100,000 Jews, more than 15 per cent of the 1933 Jewish population of Germany, to the U.S., including 15,000 Germans and Austrians in 1938 after the Anschluss, when the Reich government invalidated Austrian passports. Among those who benefited were Albert Einstein, Walter Gropius, Leon Feuchtwanger, Berthold Brecht, Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weil, George Grosz, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, and Franz Werfel. He pulled the U.S. ambassador from Berlin after Kristallnacht and famously denounced racial and religious prejudice when the French and British and Canadian leaders were ignoring the issue. Even the horrible St. Louis (the liner packed with refugees) episode would have been much different if the Joint Distribution Committee in New York, which supervised the relocation of Jews, had not refused to pay the normal bribe to the government of Cuba for accepting 930 fleeing Jews. Roosevelt has largely seen off the unfounded accusations that he gave Eastern Europe to Stalin, and is rising above the canard that he failed to address the Depression, and he will prevail against the claim of insufficient concern about the pogroms of the Third Reich. In none of these areas was his record perfect, but as with Nixon, when the country's and the world's condition are examined before and after his presidency, the comparison is as between night and day.

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