All presidents brood from time to time. Plunged into a loneliness only his predecessors would understand, the nation’s chief executive will occasionally entertain deep doubt about the direction in which his administration is drifting. Dreary midterm elections have a way of bringing it on. What’s remarkable about the real-time record Haldeman created is that it contains a modern president’s explicit expression of what he was for and what he believed himself to be.
This is of particular value in the unique case of Richard Nixon, whose centenary was marked on January 9. At 100, Nixon still intrigues and confounds the country in which was on a national ticket five times, a feat shared only by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Books, films, and plays about “RN” are still regularly produced; and while his singular disgrace at having been the only president to resign is unlikely ever to be eclipsed, surveys taken after Nixon’s death, in April 1994, reflected greater appreciation for his foreign-policy achievements. The late Robert Bork pronounced him “probably the most intelligent president of [the second] half of the 20th century.”
Conservatives, especially, should find the Haldeman notes instructive. A few years ago, in the green room at Fox News, I introduced myself to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who was then crusading for all 3,067 counties in America to name something after Ronald Reagan. I asked him: Don’t you think Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and John Mitchell, despite their ultimate disgrace, deserve more credit for the postwar ascendancy of conservatism? After all, they championed law and order, and stood against amnesty, abortion, and acid, as well as media bias, when it was least fashionable to do so — the age of Radical Chic — and carried 49 states. Weren’t the Reagan Democrats, in fact, the silent majority that Nixon had rallied a decade earlier? Norquist, returning to his newspaper, dismissed me summarily: “As far as I was concerned, Nixon, Agnew, and Mitchell were on the other side.”
The other side! Nixon had barely concluded his first inaugural address when L. Brent Bozell warned conservatives, in an open letter, that the new president had “rejected every distinctive feature of your movement.” William F. Buckley Jr., soon to orchestrate the issuance of a conservative manifesto declaring a “suspension of support” for the president, was still inclined to a measure of realism. “Did anyone really expect,” Buckley asked in The New York Times Magazine in August 1971, “that Richard Nixon would dismantle the welfare state?” The founder of National Review also allowed that Nixon’s upcoming trip to Peking could, over time, produce a “state of affairs . . . for which American conservatives would concede that our diplomatic détente with Red China was indispensable.” And in crediting Nixon with “an honest try” in the nomination of two strict constructionists to the Supreme Court — both rejected by the Senate — Buckley acknowledged a central truth about the Nixon presidency: It was the first in 120 years in which the president assumed office with the opposition controlling both houses of Congress.
Moreover, to win the presidency when Nixon did, at the close of the Sixties, was to attain the great prize in a time of its diminishment. For two decades, since his election to the vice presidency at the age of 39, Nixon had observed at close range the exercise of power at the highest levels. How much he had witnessed in the Fifties and Sixties! How ruthlessly the Kennedys and LBJ, with J. Edgar Hoover’s slavish complicity, had played the game! Now it was his turn! But, somewhere along the line, the ground shifted. The news media, with newfound speed and brazen slant, began reporting all kinds of things they never had before. Hoover, aged and embattled, was suddenly prudish about the performance of “sensitive” operations. The bureaucracy was in open revolt, emptying whole filing cabinets of classified material onto the front pages. All the institutions of the establishment faced assault from the culture itself: Now, for the first time, we had a “counterculture.” All this talk of Amerikan repression, in the age of Woodstock!