Of all the people who have ever held any elected office in the USA, few have been able to elicit anything approaching the levels or intensity of hate, contempt and caricature reserved for its 37th President, aka Richard Milhous Nixon. The portrayal of Nixon in popular culture is overwhelmingly negative.
He is almost always the object of mockery, contempt and hate- whether it is in animated shows such as the Simpsons or Futurama to films such as Watchmen. Let us also not forget about the american practice of using the suffix “-gate” for all political and public relation scandals subsequent to Watergate. Did I mention that you can still buy a Richard Nixon mask.
So, why is Richard Nixon still the most reviled american president?
If you look at the objective facts, he was not a particularly vile, incompetent, corrupt or sexually promiscuous president. He did not own slaves like Thomas Jefferson, was not involved in ethnic cleansing (in the USA) like Andrew Jackson. He like also unlike the many corrupt, incompetent and generally forgettable men who occupied the presidential office between Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nixon was not sexually promiscuous like John F. Kennedy. In hindsight Nixon looks remarkably liberal and moderate when compared to subsequent presidents and presidential candidates.
Nixon bolstered Social Security benefits. He introduced a minimum tax on the wealthy and championed a guaranteed minimum income for the poor. He even proposed health reform that would require employers to buy health insurance for all their employees and subsidize those who couldn’t afford it.
He was quite pragmatic about international relations, inspite of his own rabid anti-communism. Most of his ideological positions were to the left of Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama in the 2000s. Today Nixon would have been labelled as an anti-business, bleeding heart liberal by the Democratic party, let alone ‘his’ Republican party who would have blasted them as ‘elitist’, ‘liberal’, ‘un-american’ and ‘treacherous’.
So why is his image and legacy still so damaged and tarnished? Why is Nixon still the politician people love to hate, even though he died over 15 years ago? Why don’t people hate on empty puppets like Ronald Reagan or Bush the 43rd? Why don’t they hate on semi-shysters like Bill Clinton and Bush the 41st? Why don’t they call out servile empty suits like Barack Obama?
Here are my thoughts on that subject..
1] Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were the last relatable human beings to occupy the american presidential office. Subsequent presidents, starting with Reagan, have been mostly about image, public relations and posturing- to the point that almost nobody knows what the person inside that suit (if there is one) is really like. Modern politicians are far more similar to the character of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho..
There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.
It is far easier to hate a real person than an obvious and ever-changing simulacra of a human being. Can you imagine somebody like Clinton, Bush or Obama saying the things in their minds out aloud like Nixon? A successful modern politician will not dare express opinions contrary to the official party line to even their spouse or close friends.
2] Nixon was petty, insecure and gave off a ‘creepy’ vibe in public appearances. The guy made up a list of his political ‘enemies’ when he was president. He obsessed over pot-smoking hippies, popular musicians and artists who work or audience was not to his taste. He acted as if anybody who thought differently was also planning to humiliate, sabotage or overthrow him. Nixon also gave the vibe of a used car salesman.
It is this part of his personality, more than any other, that never ceases to amuse and entertain people. His well-known attitudes towards popular culture also made, and still make, him the favorite whipping boy of those who create it. Nixon fits the archetype of the creepy, untrustworthy, petty, insecure, paranoid person to a T. The guy lacked charm, confidence and self-esteem to an extent that is incompatible with elected office.
3] Nixon was the president when the modern ‘american dream’ first started to sour. Though the visible decline of USA started in the early 1980s, things first started to go downhill in the early- to mid- 1970s. A combination of factors- from the end of the public optimism in the late 1960s, the quagmire in Vietnam, stagflation in the USA, the start of american de-industrialization and peaking of the american middle class occurred during the Nixon presidency. Rightly or wrongly, he is seen as the guy at the helm when the ‘american dream’ started to die.
Furthermore, many other famous scandals involving the CIA, FBI, police and prison officials came to light at around the early- to mid- 1970s. Once again, Nixon was seen as being complicit in the commission of these egregious overreaches of authority. He came to symbolize all that was wrong about the old way of doing things. It certainly did not help that his personality, views and actions largely validated these connections.
The popular and reviled image of Nixon is therefore less about the individual himself and more about what he became associated with and came to symbolize.
What do you think? Comments?