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How Bad Was Nixon?

Ross Douthat has a very good (and very positive) review of Rick Perlstein's new book on the Nixon years in this month's Atlantic. I'm not quite sure about Douthat's conclusion, however:

Perlstein depicts a country on the edge of a civil war—a nation in which columnists openly speculated that America might embrace a de Gaulle–style man on horseback, or find a “President Verwoerd” (the architect of South African apartheid) to install in the Oval Office. It was a political moment when the old order could no longer govern, and the new order wasn’t ready...

In this climate, the voters didn’t choose Nixon over some neoconservative or neoliberal FDR; no such figure was available. They chose Nixon over an exhausted establishment on the one hand—nobody seems more hapless in Nixonland than figures like Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller—and the fantasy politics of left and right on the other. They chose Nixon over the abyss.

Perlstein sometimes seems to suggest that Nixon was the abyss, and that by choosing him we vanished into it. But this misunderstands contemporary America, and it misunderstands Dick Nixon. A cynic in an age of zeal, a politician without principles at a moment that valued ideological purity above all, he was too small a man to threaten the republic. His corruptions were too petty; his schemes too penny-ante; and his spirit too cowardly, too self-interested, too venal to make him truly dangerous. And he was a bridge, thank God, to better times. Could America have done better? Perhaps. But on the evidence of Nixonland, we could have done far worse as well.

Admittedly, this is preferable to the liberal "re-evaluations" of Nixon, in which we are told that Tricky Dick's Vietnam policy is "balanced out" by his creation of the E.P.A. and willingness to spend money on New Deal programs. But could we really have done worse than Nixon? Were Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller really "the abyss?" Neither one would have been an ideal president, to be sure, but when you think about Nixon/Kissinger policy in not just Vietnam but also Cambodia, Turkey, Cyprus, Indonesia, Pakistan, Chile, etc, etc, etc, well, it's pretty hard to imagine anyone worse. As for the "fantasy politics of left and right," there was not much chance of George Wallace or Tom Hayden taking up residence in the White House. Douthat may be right that America has recovered remarkably well from the turmoil of 40 years ago, but the Nixon years will always be a sorry chapter in our political history. 

--Isaac Chotiner