Another mistake that Nixon acknowledged was his decision, just before he faced voters for a second term in 1972, to support automatic cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for all Social Security recipients. He told me the change was justified at the time but made federal-budget restraint much more difficult when inflation accelerated later in the 1970s.
But my major memory of that dinner was that, despite occasional regrets, Nixon remained quite proud of his domestic achievements, which expanded the welfare and bureaucratic states. Indeed, the record is clear. As Joan Hoff observed in Nixon Reconsidered, her book seeking to rehabilitate Nixon with liberals:
From the first to the last of the Nixon budgets –1970 through 1975 — spending on human resource programs exceeded spending for defense for the first time since World War II. . . . Funding for social welfare services under Nixon grew from $55 billion in 1970 to almost $132 billion in 1975, making him (not President Johnson) the “last of the big spenders” on domestic programs.
That is, until Barack Obama.
Historians should consider Nixon’s record beyond his use of the IRS to harass his enemies and his spying on domestic opponents. Some of his actions were useful (ending the terminally flawed draft) or visionary (a failed attempt to construct an anti-missile shield against nuclear attack). But viewed in its totality, his isn’t the record of a conservative president. At best, it’s the record of a progressive Republican who, in the end, didn’t view conservatism as a valid governing philosophy — even though it was the basis of the republic created by the Founding Fathers.
As we mark Nixon’s centenary, we cannot celebrate him either as a conservative or as someone who respected the rule of law. When David Frost grilled Richard Nixon in a 1977 interview about the former president’s role in the Watergate cover-up, they had this exchange:
Frost: “Are you really saying the president can do something illegal?”
Nixon: “I’m saying that when the president does it, it’s not illegal!”
That was simply an unacceptable attitude from someone who took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.