Home > Critical Thinking, Musings, Reason, Secular Religions, Skepticism > Why is Richard Nixon Still the Most Reviled American President?

Why is Richard Nixon Still the Most Reviled American President?

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.

Richard M. Nixon Boards the White House Helicopter August 9, 1974.

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?

  1. February 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Now Watergate doesn’t bother me, does your conscience bother you????

  2. February 7, 2013 at 6:53 am

    nixon is and was hated and reviled because of his involvement in the HUAC anti communist activities and the alger hiss affair. if you don’t understand the extent of communist influence over the discourse at that time and the extent of their grudge holding still today, you can’t understand nixon. also, as long as the baby boomers keep their iron grip on the culture he will loom larger in the american psyche than his silly coverup of what again? some petty break in at a campaign office? warrants

  3. Webe
    February 7, 2013 at 7:03 am

    It was who Carter marked the end of an era, more than Nixon. Although Carter is also not rememberd fondly, he was not as reviled as Nixon, though both have been unfarily lampooned. I think Nixon was reviled also as the last “father” figure from traditional America than needed to be overthrown by the new generation that broke with all tradition.

    I have always said that Reagan marks a period where Americans have decided to delude themselves and refuse to face reality. Every appeal to traditional/conservative values since then has been fake and hollow, purely for ulterior ends. Carter was the last person to think about an energy policy, and to think about foreign policy in terms of traditional American ideals. Since then it’s been naked projection of power with some rhetorical BS that nobody truly believes thrown in. Reagan also marks the demise of the labour movement, the upsurge of Wall-Mart and concentration of journalism in the MSM, and most importantly, the start of blooming financial deficits, deregulation & bubbles: the victory of form over substance.

    The real symbol of post-American society was the liberation of Grenada from socialism, with beer commercials on the MSM touting “America is back” after a few Marines walked across the beach and used American dimes and the pay phone to call the Pentagon.

  4. Jason
    February 10, 2013 at 8:00 am

    The main factors are baby boomers and television sets. Women are a secondary factor.

    Forty years ago, the United States was a much less secular place than it is now. People believed in their own goodness, the goodness of their country, and in the goodness of their leadership. Nauseating goody-goody stuff was everywhere, even television programming. With Nixon, the public thanks to technology, finally got a chance to see how Machiavellian our system really operates. Baby-boomers, not willing to give up the mirage, would rather blame Nixon than give up on the system upon which they were raised to identify, so they demonize Nixon and keep hope to restore a lost goody-goody world. Wiser generations have known there is no such thing, but as long as oldsters want Hollywood, they will continue to get it — Reagan (literally an actor), Clinton, Obama, etc.

    Secondly, since women can vote, politics is not about ideas, but about making yourself look alpha and making the opponent look beta. On paper, Obama won his first debate against Mitt Romney (I say this as a right-winger), but it is said he lost, mainly because he wasn’t doing enough of the douchey body-language stuff female viewers love. It isn’t an accident the more alpha, more charismatic candidate has won *every* election in the post WWII era.

    The days where a boring, nerdy Calvin Coolidge reads a simple fact-based argument to the public aren’t coming back; everyone wants lies, gimmiedats from Santa Claus, tax cuts, balanced budgets, without thinking at all about consistency. After all, systematized thought is ideology, and since ideology leads to extremism, better to go with our feelings and blame reality when things go off track.

  5. February 10, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    As was already, mentioned, Nixon’s involvement in the HUAC hearings no doubt gets him lumped in with the likes of McCarthy, not a great start.
    He began his career as a participant in a series of inquiries that eventually devolved into a senseless witch hunt.
    Trouble is, we’re pretty sure Alger Hiss really was a spy.

    Nixon is often portrayed as being a fanatical red-hater through his entire career, but he was pretty consistently level headed in dealing with communist countries.

    Vietnam is of course a big source of Nixon’s notoriety, if only because protests reached a peak during that time period.
    It was a big mess that Nixon pretty quickly saw was a lost cause.
    Where LBJ repeatedly relied on troop increases as a quick fix as things kept getting worse, Nixon quickly started doing troop withdrawals instead.

    Instead of slogging around indefinitely without a strategic objective in harsh terrain populated by hostile peasants, Nixon insisted on focusing on a strategy.

    His decision to expand the war into Laos and Cambodia made him seem a supervillain at the time, but he was actually trying to shut down the Ho Chi Minh trail and actually get more done with less.troops.

    This combined with his similarly unpopular bombing of Hanoi and mining of Haiphong harbor weren’t even attempts to “win” the war at this point. Nixon was trying to get out and applying pressure every way he knew how to make the North Vietnamese come to the bargaining table.
    His work was cut out for him because the North Vietnamese knew very well that Nixon would have to give in to public pressure sooner or later….all they had to do was sit and wait while he was working with deadlines.
    Nixon finally managed to pierce the nonchalance of the North Vietnamese leaders by engaging in open talks with the USSR. This pressure combined with his other tactics, finally made an exit from the quagmire possible.

    You can only feel so sorry for a guy whose goons get caught in the act, but Nixon has definitely been defamed to an unfair degree by the Boomers.

    His main sin perhaps is he had a realpolitik sort of philosophy that was at odds with American exceptionalism and Wilsonianism. However, Wilsonian policy was disastrous when implemented by Wilson and certainly was for Dubya as well.

    Overall, Nixon was a pretty solid president who inherited a nightmare situation upon assuming office.

  6. March 21, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Don’t forget his rather blatant relationships with mafia figures such Santo Trafficante, Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello and Co. As well as that he was, in a word corrupt (not that he is a minority in U.S politics on that score). Nixon basically bumbled activities that many American presidents were applauded for – “Fixing it”. His relationship with Mob figures as well as such appalling breaches of the American people’s rights and trust such as the COINTEL scandal coming to light didn’t help him either.

    In short Nixon was in power when the American Dream died an ugly, humiliating public death, and history says “Dick, sorry, but you touched it last”

  7. Joginder
    February 2, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    His open support for butching of 3 million bengali people and supporting their killers (Pakistan) both financially, politically and military wise remains wrost act of Nixon.

    • Ian
      July 27, 2016 at 3:14 am

      Far and away the worst part of a very overall successful foreign policy. What happened in Bangladesh was flat out genocidal, and not least influenced by Nixon’s hideous racism against Indian people. “I don’t know why anyone would reproduce in that country, but they do…”

      But this isn’t just for moral reasons, also strategic ones. South Asia isn’t my particular area of interest, but here’s my take: This was the start of the fateful alliance with Pakistan which America has payed a karmic price for. While that’s a long and complicated story that involved a number of factors-Sino-American rapproachment, Smiling Buddha and continued dominance of Congress in India, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the general tendency of the Pakistanis to cultivate relations in the Pentagon and in Washington rather than the tendency of the Indians to cultivate the STEM sector and the cultural elite-I do think you could generally see the early 70s as the decisive breaking point away from the more ambivalent attitude of the earlier Cold War. Most of Nixon’s predecessors were irritated by India’s non-alignment policy as well but that didn’t change the fact that Maoist China was seen as a greater evil.

      I don’t think anyone was getting India away from the USSR in the 70s for a host of reasons, to be absolutely sure. There were reasons ranging from the strategic (especially the Sino-American rapproachment and the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty) to the ideological and personal. Nixon and Gandhi hated each other personally for many, many reasons, some of which are the source of interesting stories. They got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning, before he was even President. Both of them thought things about the other and their motives that turned out to be flat-out wrong (Nixon thought Gandhi wanted to dismember West Pakistan, Gandhi probably thought that Nixon wasn’t keeping contact with the Soviets and was dominated by Henry Kissinger). This wasn’t simply about ideology, Gandhi was able to get along tolerably with other American Presidents (especially the Kennedy White House) and Nixon probably had the closest relationship with his Soviet counterpart out of all American Cold War Presidents.

      But the Congress Party was probably ideologically incompatible with Nixon. Not just because of the USSR and the general attitude of Congress to the Cold War and to international economics: this also had a lot to with domestic politics, Congress was the mirror image of what Nixon hated in his own country, and India was generally the favorite of American leftists in the early 70s out of fuzzy notions of nonalignment, anticolonialism, a planned economy, democracy (which The Emergency and the anti-Sikh riots, which eclipsed what Nixon could have done in his darkest fantasies, did little to dent) and the counterculture. Indira Gandhi also probably had domestic and foreign political motives as well, especially given her desire to remain popular with Congress, the proliferation of the KGB within New Delhi, and the necessity of keeping India at the top of the non-aligned movement.

      Anyway, I’m overall relatively supportive, thought not uncritically, of Nixon’s foreign policy (domestic policy is a very, very different matter) record as the sort of realist conservative that is now something of a political hobo in American politics. But I would never, ever try to excuse, approve, or be an apologist of our our policy toward the Bengali genocide. I’m not a guy who typically is sentimental about human rights in foreign policy, but there are limits.

      (BTW, I’ve already mentioned that Gandhi got along tolerably with other US Presidents. This is just a personal guess, but I don’t think a present day Nixon would have minded dealing with the BJP, or *maybe* as much with the Janata Party back in the day, either. I don’t think his opinion of India would have gone under a magical reversal in his mind or anything like that, but it would have been tolerable enough.

      This would have been partially for policy reasons-no quasi-Russian alliance, and in the case of the post-80s BJP, economic liberalization-but there’s more than that. Someone like Modi, being an RSS guy born to an average family rather a postcolonial Brahmin elite, definitely would have struck more of a chord with Nixon. The sort of Hindu nationalism that they advocated would have also resonated with him far more than the Congress vision of democratic socialism in a preindustrial society. Nixon would have had absolutely trouble ignoring communal violence in either period, of course.)

  8. Ian
    July 27, 2016 at 2:24 am

    I think there’s a host of reasons for that, not least the fact that Nixon was presiding over a very complex, emotional time in American history. However, I will mainly mention the two biggest ones. One of which for Nixon had only himself to blame and one of which is indeed rather unfair.

    1) He’s the only President who resigned. All because he simply didn’t trust the American people and couldn’t bear to look weak. Nixon was in many ways the last person you wanted to deal with a nation where dirty tricks and covert support of anti-Communist coups were going the same way as women’s submission to their husbands and Jim Crow.

    Put the nation through absolute hell. He lied to everybody-his wife, his daughters, his allies, everybody. Shot his policies, many of which were quite insightful, though the foot. Negatively affected politics and the media to this day. Nixon’s legacy will always start with Watergate, and justifiably so. No way around that.

    2) Nixon’s enemies are far more likely to make books, movies, or academic papers. They generally shape intellectual and pop culture than those of almost any other President. And that means their views-which are often as wildly irrational and emotional as those of the hardcore GOP loyalists-prevail everywhere. This is helped by the fact that, as you mention, Nixon is comically easy to simplify. He was a borderline autistic, socially awkward introvert (who truly thought dope smoking hippies could be the USA what opium was to Qing China) in a nation obsessed with extroverts and was also representative of the “Silent Majority” that aforementioned bien-pensants love to hate to this day.

    Nixon was probably the most complex guy to have ever walked in the White House. People don’t want complex, they want simple. And the easiest simple “version” of Nixon, unlike that of say, Kennedy or Reagan, happens to be made by people who utterly despised him in a way that would not be seen again until the Clinton Wars.

  1. March 31, 2014 at 8:43 am

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