'Law and Order Presidents': A Nixon-Trump Nexus?
Monday evening, Donald Trump pronounced himself “your president of law and order,” which apparently means he wants to be a president known as uncompromising with violent or destructive protesters. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., police officers and assorted federal law enforcement and military personnel forced demonstrators one block north of the White House so Trump and his entourage could walk safely across Lafayette Square and hold his Bible for a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Liberals, the media, and other Trump critics went nuts over it, which I suppose was part of the appeal for Trump. Michael Gerson, for instance, found the display “sacrilegious.” Gerson was hardly alone, but my guess is that swing voters were more offended by radicals setting fire to that historic church the night before than by Trump’s macho rhetoric and tacky publicity stunt. The episode brought Richard Nixon to mind. He was the archetypal “law and order” candidate -- and a president who had a very busy day on this date in 1971.
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Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 after being abandoned by congressional Republicans. And though Americans love redemption stories, Nixon was never really rehabilitated publicly. Besotted with Ronald Reagan, GOP keepers of the flame don’t want to reconsider the legacy of the 37th U.S. president, despite his foreign policy triumphs and legislative successes in domestic policy. They have the same problem with Nixon that historians have; the same one as charitably minded Democrats who might want to rehabilitate Nixon for his role in creating the Environmental Protection Agency, expansion of funding the arts and humanities, abolition of the military draft, signing Title IX into law, and championing the vote for 18-year-olds. The problem is the Watergate tapes.
Although Nixon’s secret White House taping system predated Watergate, the tapes’ existence not only ensured Nixon would be driven out of office, they also are the gift that keeps on giving. Any revisionist historian with pro-Nixon leanings must confront the man on those recordings: coarse, mean, and spiteful -- a guy who routinely used disparaging ethnic stereotypes. In other words, Richard Nixon can’t escape historical purgatory because he communicated in private the way Donald Trump does in public.
That self-defeating instinct was very much on display on June 2, 1971. Nixon’s workday began just before 9 a.m. with a series of Oval Office meetings that ran until noon. The list of advisers and others that morning included Alexander P. Butterfield, Rose Mary Woods, H. R. Haldeman, Ronald Ziegler, and Henry A. Kissinger.
It’s an interesting list. Butterfield certainly knew the conversations were being recorded: The White House aide had overseen the installation of the taping system by the Secret Service and was the one who eventually revealed its existence. Woods is remembered as the devoted personal secretary who tried to take the fall for an inexplicable 18-minute gap in the tapes. Ziegler was the combative press secretary disliked by the “enemies of the people” -- a description of the White House press corps used by both Nixon and Trump -- but a loyal man with an impossible job.
Kissinger was then the national security adviser, although he really functioned as a secretary of state, a job he would hold during Nixon’s second term. More on him in a moment. White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman was a hard-ass with a crew cut and an aye-aye attitude that would land him in prison for doing what he thought Nixon wanted.
Haldeman and Nixon would meet two more times that day. In one of them Nixon complained about how Cabinet officials and other aides weren’t carrying out his conservative vision. In another, Nixon complained bitterly about the media. The president dashed off a memo to Haldeman complaining that he had taken Ziegler’s advice to be a “good sport” at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, only to find that at his next news conference the reporters “were considerably more bad-mannered and vicious than usual.” Nixon felt vindicated. “This bears out my theory that treating them with considerably more contempt is in the long run a more productive policy,” he wrote.
Nixon’s full schedule included much more: greeting eight Explorer Scouts in the Oval Office and then addressing a crowd of 2,000 more scouts on the South Lawn; a Rose Garden retirement ceremony honoring William J. Hopkins, a White House fixture who had served five presidents; a meeting with John B. Connally, a Texas Democrat whom Nixon had appointed to head the Department of the Treasury.
Nixon and Connally discussed an economic partnership between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Although Reagan would embrace such an alliance, Connally disparaged it -- and Latino politicians in general. There was a bit of irony here as Nixon’s last official duty of the day was presiding over a state dinner in honor of Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza.
Afterward, according to Nixon Library records, the president and first lady had an after-dinner coffee with Mr. and Mrs. Somoza in the Blue Room. After that, Richard and Pat Nixon went to the second-floor residence. Even then, Nixon’s long day wasn’t over. From 10:42 p.m. to 11:47 p.m., the president met with Kissinger. Were they planning Nixon’s nighttime tweets? Well, that’s a trick question, as Jack Dorsey wasn’t yet born. But what took them so long? The answer was global diplomacy. It seems that Kissinger had heard back from China’s premier, Chou En-lai, regarding a daring Nixon gambit. The leader of the People’s Republic of China, a nation then closed to much of the world, would welcome a visit from an old red-baiting adversary. Nixon was going to China.