Entertain conjecture of a remarkable scenario. An American president – born at the margins of society, raised by a pacifist mother – takes office at a time of national turmoil. He inherits a deeply unpopular, highly divisive war from his predecessor and must also deal with a burgeoning, worldwide financial crisis. Yet despite the fractured, fractious political atmosphere, he doesn't dither, doesn't waffle, but immediately launches the most far-reaching program of government activism in half a century.
He doesn't "freeze" domestic spending but greatly expands funding of government benefit programs, and even creates new ones, including direct payments from the general treasury to the poor and needy, in addition to the now-increased Social Security and Medicare funds. He creates new government agencies to rigorously enforce new, sweeping environmental measures. He oversees the most direct and extensive federal intervention in public education in the nation's history, forcibly moving millions of students to different schools in order to impose more equality in society. Denouncing the punitive criminal justice policies of the past, he initiates major prison reforms, creating and expanding rehabilitation programs, stating that "to reform our prisons, we need more teachers, parole officers, psychiatrists, social workers and dollars."
He increases direct government oversight of private businesses, with new agencies to ensure workplace health and safety. He proposes radical reforms in health care, including an initiative that would require employers to provide insurance for their workers while also creating a national insurance program that all could join at whatever level they could afford to pay. He supports "radical feminists" in their push for a constitutional amendment to enforce equal rights for women throughout society.
In response to the financial crisis, he doesn't seek to save the current order but takes unilateral action to completely revamp the global financial structure that had been in place for decades. Perhaps astonishing of all, he even takes direct control of the core operations of the nation's most powerful corporations, dictating the wages they can pay and the prices they can set. As one stunned commentator puts it, the president is carrying out "the largest peacetime intrusion of government in the economy in American history, surpassing even the dreams of the New Dealers."
In foreign policy, after launching several controversial "surges," he does, belatedly, end the unpopular war he inherited. What's more, despite virulent opposition from several quarters, including many in his own party, he astounds the world by openly seeking rapprochement with sworn enemies of the United States – forces dedicated to a fundamentalist ideology whose avowed goal is the destruction of the American way of life and the imposition of their ideology on the entire world. Yet the president not only calls for dialogue and negotiation with these enemies, he even goes to meet their leaders, treats them with respect and public honor, feasts with them, negotiates with them.
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A strange, even hallucinatory scenario, to be sure. But we haven't even gotten to the weirdest part. Imagine a president who does all these things – surpassing Franklin Roosevelt in government activism; slapping restraints on major corporations; providing vast new funding for the poor, the sick, for prisoners, for the environment; imposing social equality by force; seeking to nationalize health care; meeting and treating with the nation's enemies – yet is not regarded as a commie, a radical, a socialist, a progressive, a liberal, or even a "centrist," but as one of the most rock-ribbed conservatives of his day. Indeed, for many people, he is the arch-conservative of the age, a retrograde, reactionary figure, the embodiment of all that stands in the way of progress.
Yes, the presidential history of Richard M. Nixon paints a striking, even shocking contrast to the prevailing political weather today. It shows, with stark power, how very far the center of political gravity has shifted in the past 36 years. For Nixon was a rock-ribbed conservative by the standards of his day; yet compared to the timorous, time-serving "progressive" now in the White House, Nixon looks like Eugene Debs.
Even Nixon's downfall provides an instructive – and dispiriting – contrast to our day. Done in for covering up a little break-in at his opponent's headquarters? For this the entire machinery of government was convulsed, great investigatory panels convoked, grand jury indictments handed down, a sitting president impeached by the House? It's like some tale from antiquity, or maybe a work of science fiction, especially in our modern world, where the most outrageous crimes – warrantless surveillance, torture, indefinite detention, assassinations – are carried out and countenanced by presidents in broad daylight, with barely a hint of controversy ... and no thought whatsoever that they might be answerable for these misdeeds.
Of course Nixon was, despite his famous protestations, a "crook" (and war criminal) of the highest order. He was also very much one of the Founding Fathers of our modern American Post-Republic; indeed, it was Nixon who crafted the one-line constitution that now governs our state: "If the president does it, it's not illegal." I've dealt at length with his perfidy in these pages and elsewhere over the years. (See here, here, and here for examples.)
But looking back at some of the actual policies he had the brass to carry out and/or advocate, (whether from conviction or cynical opportunism doesn't matter; we're looking at deeds here, not intentions or style), many of which were actually designed to address genuine problems and imbalances in society and decrease tensions around the world, one cannot but conclude that, in some ways at least, we used to get a slightly higher grade of mass-murdering war criminal in office back in those long-departed days.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on January 29, 2010.