Editor’s note: This column by William F. Buckley Jr. appeared in the September 27, 1974, issue of National Review.
In a way, Gerald Ford is already old hat. That is a compliment, by the way. He wears the presidency with a mild-mannered conviction that is altogether reassuring. It is not as though Douglas MacArthur had been elected president, or Charles de Gaulle; and, accordingly, there are no expectations of majestic proportions, so that, as they would put it on Wall Street, any sense of psychic let-down has been discounted.
He is being carefully observed, needless to say, for evidence of where he stands on issues that divide the country ideologically. His background is non-doctrinaire conservative, but his most conspicuous overtures have been doctrinaire liberal. He seized on amnesty, women with George Meany, a soul meeting with the Black Caucus, to show that he is President of All The People. Such gestures are to be expected, and tell us not very much. His selection of Nelson Rockefeller was, in my judgment, primarily a gesture intended to restore a sense of stability, Rockefeller being one of the accepted patriarchs of the independent voter. We are left wondering where he will go from here.
And left wondering, also, just where the conservative community would like to see him go from here.
It is not widely realized how deeply Richard Nixon confounded the usual categories. There are a few indisputably “conservative” positions that evolved in the last couple of generations. We have believed in, loosely defined, a balanced budget. Nixon spent $70 billion dollars more than he took in. We have believed in letting the private sector do it if it can. Nixon hugely increased federal subsidies to schools, and paved the way for what is now absolutely certain to come, namely a federally organized national health and medical plan. We have believed in cutting the gross size of the public spending, and Nixon increased the social budget 120%. In foreign affairs, there were complementary developments.
But there is one summary dating back to 1971. Nixon has transformed the political and ideological landscape. He has imposed wage and price controls. He has espoused the Keynesian doctrine of government spending and has had successive budget deficits totalling nearly $100 billion. He has proposed welfare reform to establish a minimum guaranteed income. In foreign affairs, old shibboleths have also fallen. Nationalist China is no longer in the United Nations. Disarmament negotiations with Russia are far advanced. After the Nixon Administration Republican candidates can no longer inveigh against big government, budget deficits, government subsidies or federal regulation of the economy.”
That was an editorial in the New York Times, in the fall of 1971, and in reaction to it I published a book and called it Inveighing We Will Go.
The point to bear in mind at this juncture is that viewed historically, there were two phenomena that shielded Nixon from conservative criticism over a huge period of time — 1971 to 1974. The first was the looming shadow of left extremism, a shadow that reified in George McGovern, nominated for the presidency in 1972. After McGovern immediately into the age of Watergate, and the conservative instinct was to defend Mr. Nixon because the people who were leading the attack against him were from the other side.
Will the conservatives, Nixon having disappeared, now be able to re-group? One would think that objective historical circumstances would suggest the wisdom of a return to conservative axioms. At home we face the worst peacetime inflation in history. Last year the net economic gain for the individual working man was — negative. Unemployment is rising.
Abroad, we have lost strategic military superiority, and the question now arises whether we have lost control of the Mediterranean, which was as safe for the west, traditionally, as Lake Erie. The Persian Gulf states have perfected a form of economic blackmail that claims, as a purely incidental victim, Pan American Airlines, the premier United States carrier. In Indochina the victory is going to the Communists. NATO has degenerated into an administrative fiction, convenient for internecine quarrels between its members.
The time has come to press on Mr. Ford the relevance of the conservative vision. This requires the restoration of conservative morale. And the dawning recognition that Mr. Nixon has been the major cover-up of the age.