Tuesday, April 19, 2005

On A Jab at Nixon

Richard Nixon has become a convenient bogeyman and commonplace reference for people today--a quick toss-in whenever someone wants to talk about the rottenness of the late 60's and the 70s. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert uses him in much this way when talking about the demise of FDR's radical vision for the United States, a vision that imagined a decent wage, home, and healthcare plan for every American.
Roosevelt's vision gave conservatives in both parties apoplexy in 1944 and it would still drive them crazy today. But the truth is that during the 1950's and 60's the nation made substantial progress toward his wonderfully admirable goals, before the momentum of liberal politics slowed with the war in Vietnam and the election in 1968 of Richard Nixon.
In college, I had the chance to take a class on Nixon's "rhetorical presidency" with Lee Huebner, a former Nixon speech-writer. Admittedly, the class offered a much rosier portrait of Nixon than one might expect--it emphazed the contradictions and tensions of Nixon's personality and times, rather than simply painting broad and dark strokes about a bitter and evil man.

One thing that I remember--because it stood out sharply, given my initial impression of the man--was that Nixon, on domestic issues, was pretty liberal. In fact, liberal journalist of the era, Tom Wicker, later wrote a biography-of-sorts about Nixon called, One of Us, a striking tribute to a man the press seemed to love to hate.

Wicker was able to call Nixon "one of them" because Nixon instituted and argued for some rather progressive domestic policies throughout his administration. However nasty the "Southern Strategy," he did allow the schools to become integrated, he worked to establish the EPA, and would have, with Senate approval, instituted a minimum family income. Look at what Robert Asen has to say about this Nixon proposal:
The expansionist era may have reached its apex on the night of August 8, 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon, in a televised address to the nation, introduced Americans to his Family Assistance Plan (FAP). Passed by a comfortable margin in the House of Representatives (243 to 155), the FAP died in the Senate Finance Committee. Had it been enacted, the FAP might have been regarded by subsequent commentators as one of the most progressive pieces of social welfare legislation in American history. The FAP would have offered poor families a minimum income guarantee. It would have expanded incentives for recipients to seek paid employment while retaining a portion of their monthly cash grants. The FAP would have increased federal welfare spending and added new recipients to the rolls, and it would have created greater equality in monthly grant amounts across different regions of the country. Most importantly, the FAP may have blurred disabling and divisive distinctions between the welfare and working poor. These distinctions have enabled public policy appeals from advocates asserting an allegiance to the "working man" by contrasting his situation with the luxurious life of welfare.
This hardly sounds like a barrier thwarting "liberal momentum" or the dismantling of FDR's legacy! What is Herbert talking about? I think he's just too easily slipping into that sloppy habit of conjuring rotten ole' Nixon to kick around.


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