Nixon and Clinton and Bush

It is hard to find three more personally different individuals that served as president than Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Nixon was a deeply flawed individual whose sense of inferiority over his humble beginnings fueled not only the healthy ambition of the poor, but paranoia about the conspiracies of political opponents. Whereas Nixon’s humble origins formed a morose and taciturn adult, Clinton’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks childhood gave rise to a gregarious adult perhaps a little too concerned about what others thought of him. Bush was the child of privilege, a frat brother who was not as serious as he should have been as a young adult and apparently had a substance abuse problem. Nonetheless, all of them managed to exercise sufficient self discipline and political astuteness to become president. There are many angry and driven individuals who have not become president. Nixon did. There are many “bubbas” who have not avoided dissipation by their appetites and not risen to the presidency. Clinton did. There are many earnest children with impeccable political pedigrees who have gotten close, but have never become president. Ask Al Gore about whether familial destiny is sufficient?

These three presidents share a political fate that distinguishes them from many others who served in the office. They seem to have incited a deep and visceral animosity on the part of their political adversaries. This hostility is not born of the normal competitiveness of political differences. Jimmy Carter had the same political ideology as Clinton, but even people who opposed Carter politically never seemed to detest him with the fiery intensity devoted to Clinton. Reagan was not only a Conservative, but he was “Mr. Conservative.” No person who is more Conservative could have been elected. The Left opposed him politically, even tried to ridicule him, but few apparently hated him with the visceral distaste associated with Nixon and now Bush.

Indeed, from an objective standpoint this animosity seems oddly misplaced. As flawed as Nixon was and in spite of illegal activities, he was about as Liberal in his policies as his political opponents could have hoped for. He proposed and helped pass environmental legislation like the Clean Air and Water Acts and instituted the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon bowed to organized labor and helped create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He expanded affirmative action into the racial spoils system so many Liberals now embrace. In foreign policy, Nixon, the great anti-communist, began a rapprochement with the Soviet Union with the policy of Detente. Who else could have recognized Communist China and forged a more open relationship with it? Even, or should I say especially, the French appreciated Nixon.

Clinton also was about as Conservative as Republicans could have hoped for from a Democrat. Clinton was a “New Democrat” who quickly realized the futility of national health care legislation, declared the age of big government over, and to the anger of true-believing Liberals, joined with a Republican Congress to pass successful welfare reform.

Bush too is a moderate man by nature who generally seeks to get along. He has allowed Congress to spend like the metaphorical drunken sailor, yielded to Edward Kennedy on education reform, and just passed the largest expansion of Medicare in a generation. He is hardly engaged in a Conservative counter revolution.

Unfortunately for all three, they pressed the wrong political buttons and were forever cast in irrationally ideological terms. Early in his career as a young Congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee, Nixon investigated the Liberal Alger Hiss. Hiss was ultimately jailed for perjury. Many on the Left believed that Nixon created evidence to help convict Hiss. For this belief, Nixon was never forgiven. The fact that the poised and debonair Hiss was brought down by the uppity Congressman from California added a touch of Left-wing elitism to the anti-Nixon fervor. To cast this in contemporary terms, just imagine the rancor if even years from now Kenneth Starr, the special counsel appointed to investigate the Clintons, runs for political office.

Clinton and Bush, fairly or unfairly, earned animosity by the circumstances of their election. Clinton was elected in a plurality caused by the third party candidacy of Ross Perot who siphoned votes primarily from the incumbent President George Bush (Bush I). For some, Clinton really did not have legitimacy. Similarly, George W. Bush was narrowly elected earning the requisite number of electoral votes while not achieving a popular majority. Add to this the intervention of both the Florida and US Supreme Courts, and the animosity level intensified. Over the last three years, the sore of Bush hatred has festered.

Ironically, the hatred of Nixon, Clinton, and Bush by their political adversaries shield them from criticism within their own political parities, protecting them from their more extreme elements. This allowed Clinton and Nixon to garner the support of moderate voters. Of course, there were grumblings within their own parties about shifts to the center, but these complaints were suppressed by the natural tendency of people to rally around their leader when under assault. The consequence of conspicuous hatred on the part of their political adversaries energized Nixon and Clinton supporters and afforded both Nixon and Clinton comfortable reelection victories. Nothing compels future events to mimic past ones, but it will be interesting to see whether the same scenario plays out next fall for Bush.

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