The verdict of history is never final. Warren G. Harding, almost universally considered one of worst American president, has been rehabilitated by at least some historians. Conservative columnist Mona Charen, in an October 13, 2009 article in the National Review, quotes two historians who lionize Harding.
Richard Nixon has never lost his defenders. And sometimes they make a strong case for him. The historian Robert Dallek, in his Modern Scholar lecture series, The American Presidency , gives Nixon high marks for his economic program and his ending of the Vietnam War. And Dallek is very much in the progressive school of historians. Yet the memory of the Kent State killings, which happened forty years ago this week, reminds us of the vicious and divisive nature of the Nixon presidency.
George W. Bush's campaign strategy of polarizing the American electorate and demonizing his opponents was nothing new. While Nixon used the slogan "Bring Us Together" in his 1968 campaign, by 1970 he had become the most divisive president in recent history. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, began the assault on intellectuals, the press, and dissidents. In 1969 he made headlines with the line, "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." The Nixon machine, while never employing the outright racism of George Wallace, the 1968 American Independent Party candidate for president, took advantage of racial prejudice in what was called the "Southern Strategy."
Nixon, in his 1968 campaign, promised "an honorable end to the war." But once he became president he widened the war while launching a domestic offensive against the antiwar movement. The Johnson Administration took no action against Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and others who demonstrated in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was the Nixon Administration which ordered the Chicago Eight (later Chicago Seven after Seale was tried separately) trials.
In the spring of 1970 Nixon widened the war by approving an invasion of (he called it an "incursion") of Cambodia. As a result, there were antiwar demonstrations on hundreds of American campuses. Nixon's widely-quoted May 1 reaction to the demonstrations was:
You know, you see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world and here they are, burning up the books, I mean, storming around about this issue, I mean, you name it. Get rid of the war, there'll be another one. (American Experience, Nixon).
Three days later National Guardsmen fired on students demonstrating at Kent State University, killing four. "My child was not a bum," said the father of one of the girls killed.
Many Americans blamed the students for the deaths, as they had blamed demonstrators for the violence at the 1968, Democratic Convention, which the Walker Commission deemed a "police riot." The Republican National Committee decided to make campus riots, or "law and order" the main theme of its 1970 campaign.
The culmination of the 1970 Nixon effort was an election-eve broadcast:
SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. (AP) President Nixon will climax his strenuous role in the 1970 campaign by appearing on major television networks tonight in filmed segments of a speech decrying violent dissent..." -Elkhart Truth, November 2, 1970.
The broadcast turned out to be a disaster. The grainy black-and-white film, with a poorly-recorded soundtrack, showed an angry Nixon who seemed out of control.
The Democrats aired a speech by Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine (the 1968 vice presidential candidate). It was in color and professionally recorded. Muskie exuded calmness and rationality in contrast to Nixon's anger. Charlayne Hunter-Gault of the PBS NewsHour put it this way: "In 1970, Muskie's star rose when he responded in a nationwide speech to a divisive Republican campaign that attacked the patriotism of college students and Democrats."
In fact, polls showed Muskie beating Nixon during much of 1971. And so began Nixon's "dirty tricks " campaign, which succeeded in eliminating Muskie as a 1972 presidential candidate.
Nixon may have been progressive in his economic policies. The Environmental Protection Administration and Amtrak began under Nixon's watch. He helped bring about detente with Moscow and opened up relations with China. And after four bloody years, he removed our combat troops from Southeast Asia. But all that pales in comparison to his campaign of division, anger, dirty tricks, and yes, hatred.