In the spring of 1973, as the Watergate scandals shattered the Nixon presidency, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a long, brooding letter to a former colleague on the Harvard faculty. Moynihan, a Democrat, had joined the Nixon administration as a domestic policy adviser, hoping to nudge the Republican president toward a more liberal agenda. “Have I been a fool, a whore, or both?” he now asked his friend, Nathan Glazer.
There was another possibility. “Something, perhaps, to be forgiven,” as Moynihan put it.
Story Continued Below
For it takes two sides to rumble. And if Nixon gave no quarter, neither did his liberal foes. Even as Moynihan helped the 37th president launch an array of progressive initiatives to protect the environment, battle disease, expand health care coverage and integrate southern schools, the left remained bitterly opposed to Nixon, denigrating him at every turn. Moynihan begged his old allies to give the president some credit. Nixon craved intellectual respectability, Moynihan told historian Arthur Schlesinger in 1971 but “has come to feel that nothing he will ever do can win intellectual support and therefore hates intellectuals more than ever.” Without some kind of affirming feedback to reward the ever-insecure president, Moynihan warned, Nixon’s dark side would prevail.
Nixon and his staff certainly “betrayed us,” Moynihan wrote Glazer, absolving the disgraced president for little that happened in Watergate. “But there is a sense in which they were also betrayed. Nothing they did could win … approval.” There was “no give either way.”
It’s a lesson to remember, perhaps, as Donald Trump, another truculent, applause-craving president, meets unrelenting political opposition. One week into his administration, and social media is chock with furious, left-leaning partisans: denying Trump legitimacy, and demanding that congressional Democrats resist! and throw sand in every gear. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is said to be stealing a march on rivals for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination by casting more votes than others against Trump’s cabinet appointees.
Neither Moynihan nor I would suggest that today’s Democrats, independents or moderate Republicans forfeit their core principles. If Trump endeavors to round up the parents of American-born children, and send them to detention camps for deportation, Americans must march in protest. If he seeks to deprive American citizens of the right to vote, under the guise of “election reform,” then men and women of principle must respond, in the courts and at the polls. Senate Democrats and Democratic governors must serve, as the Founders intended, as checks on the potential abuse of power posed by one-party rule in Washington. And if Trump lies and dissembles to justify his actions on voting fraud, immigration, torture, relations with Russia and China or climate policy, the press and the public must insist on truth.
Yet Moynihan might counsel Democrats to search, as well, for ways to exploit the opportunity. In Trump’s insecurity and narcissistic tendencies the resistance may find openings. All politicians crave applause, and this new president, maybe, more than others. He has shown no rigid ideological principles. With the proper reinforcement, he may be weaned from his darker impulses, as Nixon was early in his presidency. And, perhaps, another paralyzing, cataclysmic Ragnarok, like Watergate, might be avoided.
Nixon entered office in 1969 with the same sort of reputation that saddles Trump—of a bruising gut fighter, adept at dabbling in the politics of grievance, and willing to exploit racial fears and division to get his way. For every “new Nixon” in his career, there had been a reemergence of the Tricky Dick of old. The gulf between Nixon and the liberal establishment was vast and deep, and grew deeper as he continued to wage war in Southeast Asia.
But shrewd politicians sense the currents of public opinion, and recognize opportunity. Just eight days after Nixon was inaugurated, a blowout at an offshore drilling rig dumped 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the waters off Santa Barbara, California. It was the largest such spill, to that time, in the United States, and helped to ignite a national movement to preserve and protect the environment. Nixon was quickly on the scene, assuring Americans that he shared their concerns. He then set out to prove it.
Nixon, a pragmatist, was not averse to a Teddy Roosevelt sort of conservation, preserving natural resources for future generations. Russell Train, a well-known conservationist, had chaired the Nixon transition task force on the issue and had been appointed undersecretary of interior. White House counselor John Ehrlichman, a land use lawyer from Seattle, was also supportive of the cause, as was Moynihan—who (in 1969!) alerted his colleagues to the “apocalyptic” dangers of global warming. By May there was a new White House environmental council. In July, Nixon gave a ringing endorsement, and a pledge of federal support, for population control. In September the administration announced its opposition to construction of a new South Florida airport close by the Everglades. The Democrats on Capitol Hill cooperated, and on New Year’s Day, 1970, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act—the far-reaching law requiring environmental impact statements for large scale federal actions.
Nixon was only getting started. He appointed Train chairman of the newly established Council on Environmental Quality. And, as the nation prepared to mark the first Earth Day in the spring of 1970, the Nixon administration sent a wide-ranging environmental message to Congress, with 37 proposals to heal the earth and preserve its gifts. “No president before—or since—has offered such an extensive, coordinated legislative agenda” to protect the environment, scholar J. Brooks Flippen wrote in 2000.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established by executive fiat, and placed in the capable hands of William Ruckelshaus. When Ruckelshaus moved on, Train succeeded him. With a stroke of Nixon’s pen, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was born. The smog-killing capstone of the environmental movement emerged from Congress as the Clean Air Act of 1970, and Nixon’s EPA followed it up with tough automobile emission and air pollution standards. He signed legislation to regulate pesticides, to police ocean-dumping, to protect marine mammals and to safeguard coastal zones and shorelines.
As a motivating issue for American voters, the fate of the environment flashed from spark to conflagration in a matter of months, then settled into a steady flame. Nixon’s interest in the issue followed the course of the public’s passion. In 2012, the leaders of major environmental organizations—the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, Friends of the Earth and others—were asked in a poll to name the U.S. president who did most for the environment. Nixon trailed only Teddy Roosevelt in the results.
The Nixon administration’s progressivism ranged far beyond the environment. Tax reform for low- and middle-income individuals; increased aid for education; a bigger food stamp budget; a 20 percent hike in Social Security payments and the new, annual Cost of Living Allowances passed the Democratic Congress and became law with his approval during his first term. Nixon also signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, creating a federal agency to police unsafe workplaces. He declared a war on cancer, with a massive infusion of medical research money. He asked Congress to double federal funding for the arts. He presided over the glorious final stages of Project Apollo, with the moon landing on July 20, 1969, and the birth of the Space Shuttle program.
Nixon gagged at the potential effect on collegiate football and other big time men’s athletics, but he okayed the requirement that women athletes have access to equal funding when he signed a higher education act with a far-reaching Title IX, banning gender discrimination in education and giving millions of young women the opportunity to demonstrate dash and skill on the playing field. The Nixon administration ended the draft, created a volunteer military and approved a drop in the voting age from 21 to 18. Nixon’s “self-determination” policy—reversing decades of government coercion on Native Americans to assimilate—made him an honored figure on many Indian reservations.
These were banner years, with worthy progressive achievements. But nothing Nixon did seemed good enough. It wasn’t enough to pass the Clean Air Act and create the EPA; he soon came under fire for supporting federal funding of the SST—a supersonic transport which could damage the ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere—and the building of the Alaska pipeline. It wasn’t enough that his administration launched federal affirmative action programs and oversaw the desegregation of southern schools; he was slammed for opposing busing.
Nixon got the pervasive feeling that his record was not yielding commensurate rewards. Senate Democrats blocked two of his Supreme Court appointments, and moved to cut off funding for the Vietnam War. His age-old foes in the press viewed his actions with skepticism and suspicion. He found it most irritating when rancorous liberals and unappeasable commentators would carp about his performance.
“We can have peace. We can have prosperity. We can have all the blacks screwing the whites” and still not get his proper due from the Democrats and their allies in the press, Nixon griped to his aides, in one rant captured on the White House tapes.
Character is destiny. Nixon was far too thin-skinned, vindictive and insecure to keep with a policy of cooperation without some kind of political and emotional payoff. By the summer of 1971, he was renouncing his own achievements. “We don’t do a goddamn thing right around this place in terms of accomplishing anything,” he said, in remarks recorded on another White House tape. “On the domestic scene we haven’t fired the right people, we’re still screwing around on permissiveness on the welfare thing, we’re just giving more food stamps to loafers—all the things that are wrong—and we’re just running the chaos a little better,” he complained.
“I am opposed to these goddamn liberal plans,” Nixon said. “I’m simply against them and all I get in front of me is some other liberal initiative. The environment and all that bullshit. … We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the food stamp program. It’s wrong, it’s wrong. We’re playing a game in which we don’t gain a goddamn thing.”
Nixon’s change of heart had consequences. Moynihan departed, progressive initiatives were left to founder, and the mood in the Oval Office turned to us vs. them. The belligerent president unleashed the polarizing Vice President Spiro Agnew and, in an historic clash with the press in the summer of 1971, went to court to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret study on the Vietnam War that had been leaked to the New York Times and other newspapers. The freebooters hired by Nixon’s aides to stop the leaking—the Plumbers, they were called—would be caught installing bugs in the Democratic Party headquarters in the spring of 1972. Nixon won reelection in an history-making landslide that fall, but the seeds of Watergate, and his ultimate destruction, were sown.
And so, when it was over, when Nixon had departed the White House on Army One, after telling a room of weeping aides and a national television audience how hate destroys the hater, Moynihan rued the lost opportunity.
“During those first few years of Nixon, there was some damn good government,” he told an interviewer. “But Nixon couldn’t get any credit for it. The press and others just kept denying it, denying it, and he gave up. He gave up trying.”
Given how Republican scorched-earth tactics undermined the administration of Barack Obama, it is, perhaps, difficult to offer an argument to Democrats that Trump should be treated with any more deference than he and the Tea Party gave his predecessor. Perhaps our politics is consigned, for a time, to mere vying for the angry and aggrieved. Nor, as noted above, should we Americans concede core principles.
But in dealing with an egotist, a narcissist, a status-seeking showman who craves the balm of public acclaim, it may be instructive to study the Nixon years.
Begin with the assumption that Trump is a rational man, and that his foot-stomping and tweeting and intemperate outbursts are contrived—a part of the art of the deal. If so, progressives might find that their best hope of advancing measures they have pushed unsuccessfully in the recent past—like, say, a massive public works program to repair the nation’s infrastructure, or the elimination of such rich man’s welfare as the carried interest tax break—lies in artful alliance. Trump is a latecomer to populism, after all; the Democrats embraced it in 1896.
For organized labor and left-leaning Democrats, Trump’s espousal of their “fair trade” position is a welcome change. American factory workers have long viewed free trade dogma as the legacy of an unholy alliance between the Democratic Party’s neoliberal and the Republican Party’s big business wings. Democrats from the heartland, and socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders, have been calling for a little protectionism—and getting roasted for it by the elite editorial writers and fat cat donors—since the 1980s. Just ask Siri about Richard Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign, the Iowa caucuses and the K-car ad. There’s room, without sacrificing their principles, for progressives to spread some balm on Trump’s so-easily bruised ego—and to drive a wedge into Republican ranks in the process.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senate campaign chairman Chris Van Hollen have a lot of seats to defend in red and purple states in 2018. Firing up the base is part of the solution. But for Democratic incumbents in states like North Dakota, Indiana or Wisconsin, a few signing ceremonies at the White House might allow them to demonstrate, at the Rotary Club luncheons back home, how they have tempered Trump’s worst instincts and done some good for their country and constituents. When squaring off against Ronald Reagan, in 1981, Speaker Tip O’Neill never asked for ideological purity from the red state Democrats—the boll weevils, they were called—in his caucus. He needed them to hold the House in 1982. That was the meaning of “all politics is local.”
What’s in it for Trump? Accomplishments that generate broader support. Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and presumably the chief executive’s political advisers know that a president whose approval rating lingers in the political basement represents a crushing liability for the members of Congress from his party in midterm elections, and a vulnerable target thereafter, apt to be driven into early retirement or challenged in the presidential primaries. There are Republican officeholders, in purple states and districts, who watched the women’s march last weekend, the president’s first volley of executive actions, and the way that Trump’s campaign of falsehoods have roused the media, and are doubtless wondering what the White House strategy is—and how their careers fit into the picture. No matter how Trump, and his allies in the conservative media, try to spin it, Republican strategists recognize that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 election by almost three million votes. The Democrats aren’t going anywhere.
Finally, there is another alternative that, harrowing though it is, must be considered. Perhaps Trump is not a rational actor. Maybe this is not the art of the deal. It could be that what we see is what we’ve got—mendacity and braggadocio, aggression and raw, ungoverned ego. He may not care whether he leads the Republican Party, and the United States, into crises. Like the song says, he’ll do it his way.
If so, who’s to say that the Tea Party model, the scorched-earth approach, is the best route for “the resistance” to take in the next two, or four years?
Behaviorism may prove a better model. If it turns out that the “handling” of a president’s truculent senescence emerges as the great task of Trump’s tenure—the one for which both Democrats and Republicans will be judged by history—then samplings of positive reinforcement, to moderate his behavior, and keep him away from dark places, may be called for.
So, at least, Moynihan would tell us.