Happy Birthday, Tricky Dick
Today former President (!) Richard Nixon would have been 100, and I’m sorry the ol’ creep isn’t still around; since he would undoubtedly be in a very bad mood. You see, his most infamous legal doctrine, “if the President does it, it is not illegal,” once a shockingly outrageous statement, is now comfortably enshrined as bipartisan consensus; the open corporate bribery that laid him low has been approved by his former nemesis, the US Supreme Court, and all manner of Government spying on citizens once considered anathema are now as American as Nixon’s favorite treat, cottage cheese and ketchup.
As it turns out, Tricky Dick was just unlucky enough to be born about 50 years too early; in the rosy dawn of the 21st century Presidents can openly take bales of cash from corrupt casino moguls and telecom monopolies, wantonly bomb countries out of pique or political calculation, prosecute and/or legally harass legitimate critics, and intimidate (what’s left of) the news media. And even in Tricky Dick’s wildest dreams, he couldn’t possibly have envisioned a day when he could just kill people he didn’t like, but here we are. As something of a Nixon scholar, I’ve often mused about whether Nixon might have finished out his term had he been bolstered by the bell-bottom equivalent of Fox News, but I don’t think so anymore. He wouldn’t need it.
Significantly, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove cut their gnashing teeth in the Nixon White House, and had they dedicated their lives to making Nixon’s worst abuses standard procedure, they could hardly be more delighted with the results. And since they did dedicate their lives to this dubious endeavor, quite openly, I’m sure their only regret is that today they can’t share their triumph with their old boss. As Digby pointed out today in an excellent comment on this subject, the Republican Party of today isn’t the party of Reagan, but of Richard Milhous Nixon, God rest his putrefying soul.
The terrors that haunted Nixon are the same terrors that haunt Republicans today: academia, Hollywood, the “liberal” media, darkies, hippies and what have you, to which Muslims, gays, environmentalists, atheists, unions, immigrants, women, and public servants have been helpfully added to suit the times. Like Nixon, Republicans are completely unable to refute the messages of any of these groups, so they methodically demonize the messengers. Thus, a fictitious “majority,” whether of the silent or moral variety, is relentlessly badgered into a state of false victimhood against anything but the real sources of its anxieties.
And who better to help Republicans bring back the polyester era than the guys who brought us polyester in the first place? Yet rogue industries like petrochemicals aren’t the only ones to have leapt on the pre-Watergate corporate free-for-all, and today’s are bigger (and kookier) than ever. While Sheldon Adelson may be a little less crazy than Howard Hughes, he doesn’t have to sneak around when financing Presidents, and he had many fewer billions to toss in the street. Likewise, the oil industry has consolidated to the point where four phone calls will bring a tsunami of cash wherever it might help, and this fact alone assures that the money might never be needed.
Which brings us back to the role of the media in bringing to life what Rick Perlstein called, appropriately, Nixonland. It is a land of conformity, paranoia, unaccountable and secretive government, casual repression, and simmering resentments. It’s a place where powerless groups are pitted against each other over transparent distractions while the elites clandestinely divvy up the spoils. Most of all, it’s a country that shuns not only self-government, but the very idea of the Rule of Law. All of this might have rightly struck Americans as, well, un-American, in an era when the news media was still robust, competitive, and diverse, but those days are over.
Nixon got the ball rolling when he signed the Newspaper Preservation Act, which in the guise of maintaining editorial diversity, allowed one corporate entity to own both (or even all) newspapers in a given town, and the message was heard as loudly and clearly as were his later threats to withhold licenses from critical broadcasters: subservience to government could be better for the bottom line than anything like real journalism. Later, Reagan eliminated the Fairness Doctrine, allowing AM radio to degenerate into a right-wing fever swamp, and Clinton followed on his round heels with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which whittled the news media even further, from a dozen or so owners to the handful we are left with today. Today, the Obama FCC is poised to let Rupert Murdoch go ahead and buy both the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, even though he already owns major TV stations on both markets.
I’m glad Nixon never lived to see this day, but I’m deeply chagrined that I have.