David T. Courtwright


On his book No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America

Cover Interview of October 31, 2010

A close-up

For fans of psychobiography, Nixon is the gift that keeps on giving.

Even after he reached the White House in 1969, Nixon still had to live with his ulcers and his demons.  He fled them, not in the sleep denied by insomnia, but in the waking dream of omnipotence and grand achievement.  He’d show them.  He’d tidy up the nation’s messes, restore its prestige, enter its history as a great statesman.  And God help anyone who tried to stop him.

Publicly, Nixon had campaigned to bring the nation together.  Privately, he railed against the elite that scorned him.  The educated, society’s natural leaders, had lost their guts, Nixon told his staff.  They drank too much, parroted fashionable talk.  They knocked the system and boo-hooed about the blacks, who were hopeless anyway.  The Jews had the wettest hankies.  A few tough ones, like Henry Kissinger, knew the score.  The rest were pathetic.  Permissiveness and defeatism had spread everywhere, even to the clergy.  No wonder the churches were emptying out.  Now the Catholics were starting down the same damn road.  And look at the schools, filled with nihilism and dope.  Most of the kids would be better off if they got out from behind their desks and did some honest work.

Given his right-conservative temperament, Nixon would have preferred a domestic policy aimed at reducing taxes, bureaucracy, union influence, crime, vice, spending, and the supply of money.  That he did none of these things consistently, that he presided over an erratically liberal domestic policy, was due to a fateful combination of circumstances.  Nixon was the first elected president in 120 years to assume office with the opposition party controlling both houses of Congress.  The Democrats’ liberal allies dominated the federal bureaucracy, the national media, and the academic establishment.  Collectively, they could block any reactionary shift.

Nixon therefore had to work subtly.  He exploited social issues through deft gestures.  He even ordered the removal of Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s comedic novel of sexual obsession, from the White House library and then leaked the news that he had done so.  But he mostly refrained from overt attacks on welfare queens and newsroom lefties.  That was Spiro Agnew’s job.

Nixon did his venting in private, which was why the White House tapes were so scurrilous.  He was letting his hair down with the boys–only the boys, Nixon’s prejudices fully extending to women.  Yet he supported the Equal Rights Amendment and sought a conservative female Supreme Court nominee, rubbing his hands over the prospect of Senate liberals taking their law-and-order pill with a sugar-coating of feminism.  He really was Tricky Dick.

Nixon’s canny posturing left a bitter legacy for Goldwater Republicans.  “Buchanan,” the president once told his speech writer, “you have to give the nuts 20 percent of what they want.”  Those words distill four decades of Culture War politics.

Nixon blazed a trail of tokenism through the political thicket of counterrevolution.  His successors mostly followed it.  Right-conservatives grew increasingly frustrated. Having nominated one of their own in 1964, having apparently elected one of their own in 1968, having surely elected one of their own in 1980, they never got a Republican administration that governed in a consistently conservative fashion, moral or, for that matter, economic.  Nixon was the first in a long line of White House disappointments.