John Oliver’s beatdown of DaVita reminds us: Richard Nixon was an American liberal icon

Noam Chomsky, of all people, has called Tricky Dick “America’s last liberal president.” Sadly, he couldn’t have been more right.

Way back in 2008 I said this:

If he were a candidate in the 2008 presidential election, Richard M. Nixon would be more progressive than either the Republican or Democratic nominees.

What a ludicrous thing to say, right? I mean, Nixon was as twisted and corrupt as any president in US history. Hunter Thompson said “Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.” He got caught with said pants down in l’affaire Watergate and had to resign. He’s the reason anything remotely scandalous has to have a name ending in “-gate.”

Worst. President. Ever. A fixer of the first order. All of which attached, by association, to the Republican Party, making his name synonymous with the rank evil of the American conservative polity.

That he was congenitally shady is unarguable, but the conservative part probably isn’t fair at all. No less a liberal luminary than Noam Chomsky said this: “Richard Nixon was America’s last liberal president.”

Any number of times since I wrote that article seven years ago I’ve raised the point with people who were tossing the terms “liberal” and “conservative” around like they were fixed points. And I always get this look that says hey, your IQ isn’t as high as I thought.

But as I said then, and at the risk of being repetitive, let’s go to replay:

  • He was a keen foreign policy type whose diplomatic efforts strengthened our relationships with both established and emerging world powers, some of them historical adversaries (China, Russia).
  • Nixon got us out of one of the most socially and psychically debilitating wars in history, the quagmire of Vietnam. Yes, a Republican got us out of a war. (I know, I know. Henry Kissinger. I ain’t saying Dick was perfect.)
  • He implemented the first significant federal affirmative action program.
  • He dramatically increased spending on federal employee salaries.
  • He oversaw the first large-scale integration of public schools in the South (something the crackers where I grew up were none too happy about). (Granted, he also gave us the “Southern Strategy,” the overtly racist playbook the GOP has been improving on to this very day. That’s appalling, but it’s also a slightly different conversation that has to do with electioneering, not governing.).
  • He proposed a guaranteed annual wage (aka a “negative income tax”).
  • He advocated comprehensive national health insurance (single payer) for all Americans (with federal subsidies). His proposal was substantially to the left of Obamacare and the stillborn Bill Clinton program.
  • He imposed wage and price controls in a time of economic crisis. This was a bad idea in retrospect, but the point is it was the furthest thing from a conservative idea. Truth is, it was positively Socialist. Side note, per Bloomberg (more from them below): “Two of the top administrators of Nixon’s big-government wage and price controls were Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.”
  • Both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities thrived under his administration in ways they have not since.
  • He indexed Social Security for inflation and created Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and those with disabilities.
  • He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.
  • He promoted the Legacy of Parks program.
  • Title IX became law on his watch.
  • Social spending eclipsed defense spending for the first time in U.S. history.
  • He appointed four Supreme Court Justices. Three of them voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade.

Again: out of a war, diplomat, affirmative action, increased federal employee salaries, integration of public schools, guaranteed annual wage, single payer healthcare, Socialist-like wage and price controls, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Supplemental Security Income, EPA, OSHA, NOAA, Office of Minority Business Enterprise, Legacy of Parks, Title IX, increased social spending, Roe v. Wade.

If you saw John Oliver’s epic takedown last night of DaVita, the Fortune 200 kidney dialysis giant, you probably realize that there’s even more to Nixon’s robust liberal bona fides.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a bill into law saying the government would pay for dialysis for anyone who needed it.

“Essentially we have universal health care in this country, for one organ in your body,” Oliver said. “It’s like your kidneys, and only your kidneys, are Canadian.”

At the time, only about 10,000 patients needed coverage, but over the past four decades, the rise of diabetes and high blood pressure has led to nearly half a million people requiring dialysis, Oliver said. The cost of covering dialysis now accounts for 1 percent of the federal budget, he added.

Right – dialysis on the house – Dick is buying! What else?

  • He expanded food stamps.
  • He imposed a minimum tax on the wealthy (the Alternative Minimum Tax).
  • He created the Council on Environmental Quality.
  • He signed the Clean Air Act into law.
  • He ended the gold standard once and for all.
  • He instituted racial quotas as federal policy.
  • He supported automatic cost-of-living adjustments for all Social Security recipients.
  • He brokered nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and set the stage for future arms reduction pacts that brought about the end of the Cold War.

As the National Review explains:

In private, Nixon was scathing about conservatives ranging from Ronald Reagan (he considered him a showy “know-nothing”) to William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review. John C. Whitaker, a top Nixon aide, wrote in Presidential Studies Quarterly that he sat with Nixon on a plane the day after Buckley lost the 1965 race for mayor of New York to liberal Republican John Lindsay.

“The trouble with far-right conservatives like Buckley,” Nixon told Whitaker, “is that they really don’t give a damn about people and the voters sense that. Yet any Republican presidential candidate can’t stray too far from the right-wingers because they can dominate a primary and are even more important in close general elections. Remember, John,” Nixon lectured, “the far-right kooks are just like the nuts on the left, they’re door-bell ringers and balloon blowers, but they turn out to vote. There is only one thing as bad as a far-left liberal and that’s a damn right-wing conservative.” [emphasis added]

Herbert Stein, Nixon’s chief economic adviser, once wrote: “Probably more new regulation was imposed on the economy during the Nixon Administration than in any other presidency since the New Deal.”

Like many people these days, I’m casting a wistful eye toward the circus at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and longing for a more humane, progressive time. I’m also glancing sideways at a spot some 12 miles to the northwest – 630 Capitol St., home of the Democratic National Committee, and thinking how nice it would be if they were as liberal as Tricky Dick Nixon (and perhaps a little less corrupt, to boot).

How bad has it gotten when I find myself agreeing, even a little bit, with Pat Buchanan: “Nixon, now more than ever!”

4 replies »

  1. What’s a little breaking and entering so long as we get health care? I’m kidding of course.

    So was Carter not a liberal? Or did he just not have the power/influence to get things done?

    • Well, mostly, although he’s a mixed bag in places. On the Issues rates him a hard-core liberal. Of course, they rate Bill Clinton and Barack Obama almost identically, so I’d argue the tool is badly flawed.

      He wasn’t exactly full-throated when it came to pro-life issues. He was pro-death penalty. He favored deregulation of banks and airlines. He was okay with “ethnic purity” in neighborhoods. “Return to values”/”moral” beacon thing is troubling in its implications if you’re a guy like me.

      And despite what anyone tells you don’t forget how central he allowed the church to be in things – his “faith” guided him and he legitimized that. I know he was a social justice Christian instead of a social conservative, but remember the outrage at his church when the blacks tried to join? It was a stunt, but it worked. Few things in the world are more racist than Christianity in the South, and he got inadvertently hung up in that mess.

      Mostly I don’t worry so much about the ideological bent because he was so woefully inept at the job, though. He has become a great statesman, I think, one of the greatest EX-presidents in history, which is nice. Let’s just don’t try and make that the history of his four years in office.