Nixon's living legacy

Tuesday April 24, 2012

The death of Charles "Chuck" Colson, President Nixon's infamous "hatchet man," and the likely impetus behind the Watergate burglary, brings to mind those turbulent years for the nation -- and the darkest aspects, which we continue to grapple with today.

First, we would recommend to anyone the recent novel, "Watergate," by Thomas Mallon. This remarkable book fleshes out -- as Woodward and Bernstein were unable to do with nonfiction -- those scandal-blackened years. It brings back in all its polluted glory the dysfunctional -- yet sometimes brilliant -- administration that Mr. Nixon assembled prior to his forced resignation at the point of impeachment in 1974.

Mr. Colson, who famously found religion after being imprisoned for his role in the scandals surrounding the bungled Watergate break-in, was certainly one of those colorful, if insidiously driven characters roaming the Nixon White House. He seemed to best reflect the president's own dark, brooding, paranoid strain and his obsession with enemies and with proving his own competence -- which others in Washington readily acknowledged.

While the Mallon novel portrays both the flaws and strengths of those surrounding this flawed president -- as well as the pathos and dark humor of an improbable plunge from power -- what we have left today is the legacy of Mr. Nixon's political strategies and methods, those he and his henchmen set in motion and which haunt us still.

These include his Southern Strategy, which the president conceived as a way for the Republicans to make inroads in the South by pointing out, subtly at first, that the Democrats had pushed through civil rights legislation, backed desegregation policies and were, most often, among those opposing the Vietnam War.

Who did the Republicans target here? It was a cynical appeal to racist attitudes, and it succeeded to the point the formerly Solid South of the Democrats, dating from the Civil War era, is now the Solid South of the Republicans.

In addition, Mr. Nixon, before he became President Eisenhower's vice president in 1952, was famous for campaigning on the notion that Democrats were "soft" on our enemies, especially communists at the time. Today, it would be "soft on terrorism," and we all have heard the man's political descendants make that insinuation.

This strategy was most "successful" when President Johnson escalated the Vietnam War to avoid being called weak militarily, and LBJ, President Kennedy and others were bullied into supporting massive military weapons build-ups to avoid being labeled soft on defense.

Consider how much this has cost the nation -- in debacles like Vietnam, and now Afghanistan, and in the legacy of our nuclear weapons program, which left us with thousands more warheads than we could have ever used, along with the pollution surrounding weapons facilities.

So, while Mr. Nixon and some of his associates were admirable at times, and he had many successes in foreign affairs and domestically, such as establishing relations with communist China, the legacy of his cynical pursuit of "enemies," real and imagined, remains vivid as well.

As we watch our Red state-Blue state animosities play out daily over cable news shows and the Internet, don't forget to "thank" Chuck Colson. And thank E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman, Jeb Magruder, and, of course, the man who collected this dysfunctional, disturbed crew inside the White House.

Many probably know that a number of those entering the federal government in those days remain alive and well and active in today's political wars. What we need as a nation is to be born again, but unlike Mr. Colson, in a political sense. That might just take a miracle.


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