A Rather Draconian Moderation Policy...

Rick Perlstein on Richard Nixon, Father of the EPA

Rick Perlstein:

The Father of the EPA on Environmentalists: "a bunch of damned animals": I've just started recognizing a paradox... some of the things that are most important to me I don't blog about much.... For instance, the conservative movement's historical exploitation of racism, and their bad faith in facing this past. Some strange and fetid example of same.... I'll pull out a favorite book from my collection of wingnuttia, Behind the Civil Rights Mask (1965, Lee Edwards and Terry Catchpole, introduction by National Review columnist John Chamberlain; the cover depicts Martin Luther King's face, as, yes, an actual mask, because he, as you know, "according to the files of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, has been associated with the following Communist-front organizations," behind which front, "He is demanding the creation, for the Negro alone, of false 'rights' which are not now, and never have been in all the long centuries of an Ango-American concept based on orderly freedom, the rights of anybody at all").

I'll sit down to write. And then I realize that to do the subject justice will require, actually, not three hundred words but three thousand. Then I sit down to write the three thousand words before realizing it will take not one post but three, and rather than writing starting outlining the three, I'll realize realize that it will actually take thirty, which makes 90,000 words, which is the length of a short book...at which point I put away the laptop with a weary sigh and never get around to writing about this subject that is so important to me at all, because that ocean is so, so vast and my bucket is oh so small.

Another one of those subjects is the canard that Richard Nixon must be a "liberal" because he started the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, finally, after months of dithering, professional due diligence demands I finally put something down on the subject. I've got a brand new book that ships starting this week from Princeton University Press, Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents. For the benefit of scholars and history students (professors! perfect for course adoptions!), it collects or excerpts some thirty...well, Richard Nixon speeches, writings, and documents.... To do justice to the very complex question of whether or not or how or to what extent Nixon was "conservative" would require, I now realize, another book (or thirty blog posts at least). But to debunk the notion that the EPA proves Nixon was "liberal"--well, for your delectation, a selection from pages xliv to xlvi of

What kind of president was Richard M. Nixon? On the domestic front, a startlingly indifferent one. He once famously labeled domestic policy "building outhouses in Peoria"; he believed such matters took care of themselves, without a president to guide them, and nearly set out to prove it. Later, the laws passed during his administration, and the bills he attempted to pass, earned Nixon a reputation as a sort of liberal. It would be more accurate to say that he took the path of least resistance, and that the conventional policy wisdom of the day was, simply, liberal. He paid closest attention to domestic policy-making when it involved a political constituency he wanted to punish or reward.

He was sold, for example, on adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan's idea for a guaranteed minimum income to replace the existing welfare system when Moynihan assured him it would wipe out the social welfare bureaucracy, a Democratic political constituency. (In a strategy meeting for the 1972 election, he proposed either sabotaging its passage or implementation, either way preserving credit for caring about the poor without doing anything at all.) His federal drug control policies could never have survived in our own conservative era: for heroin addicts, they substituted medical treatment for punishment. Nixon's interest in reform was once again political: he hoped fewer heroin addicts would add up to a lower crime rates in time for his 1972 reelection campaign.

His policy preferences also indicated a conflicted eagerness to please opinion-making elites. They praised his establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency, launched with an inspiring speech: "the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debts to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and our living environment. It is literally now or never." But he shared his true opinion of the issue in an Oval Office meeting auto executives: that environmentalists wanted to "go back and live like a bunch of damned animals." Throwing conservationists a bone also suited another political purpose: the issue was popular among the same young people who were enraged at him for continuing the Vietnam War. In the end, the EPA was a sort of confidence game. The new agency represented not a single new penny in federal spending for the environment. It did, however, newly concentrate bureaucracies previously scattered through vast federal bureaucracy under a single administrator loyal to the White House--the better to control them.

I now officially declare that, as master of this particular domain, hereafter any comment that mentions that the EPA proves Nixon was "liberal" will be deleted. :-)

Yog rules OK!