Kevin Smant: Is the Republican Party the Party of Watergate as Rick Perlstein Claims?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Smant teahes history at Indiana University South Bend.]

Now that final exams and the hectic days of the holidays are behind us, I'd like to go back to something that appeared on C-Net a few weeks ago. It was the text of a talk given by Rick Perlstein at a recent Princeton University conference on the conservative movement, its past, present, etc. In it, Mr. Perlstein discusses what will be his next book, a history of American conservatism during the Nixon years, and he argues that conservatives then--as with conservatives now, according to Perlstein–lost their way. They became too much inclined to defend anything a sitting president did, defending (according to Perlstein) corruption, illegality, etc., be it that of Nixon or (now) of George W. Bush.

Perlstein argues that all of this compares unfavorably to the principled independence of America's first major conservative political leader, Barry Goldwater, about whom of course Mr. Perlstein has written a very important book. In his talk, Perlstein said: " has become my thesis that the Republicans are less the party of Goldwater, and more the party of Watergate---and this not despite the operational ascendancy of the conservative movement in its councils but in some cases because of it..."

Well. Having written myself on the history of American conservatism through my work on National Review, James Burnham, and more recently Frank Meyer, I thought I'd briefly respond to all this, and I thought others on this list would find this interesting too.

First of all, I'm glad Rick Perlstein is writing about conservatism and the Nixon years. It's an important topic and hasn't really been addressed much by historians. I've thought of writing about it myself some day.

It raises important and interesting questions. By the time Nixon came into office, conservatism had for some time been an opposition, an insurgency. But now someone who...well, if not "one of them", had at least fairly close ties to them, was in office. How would conservatives behave? They'd wanted access to power for so long. Now, maybe, they had it. But power and principles don't always coexist easily. And there were certainly instances where conservatives, during Nixon's time, didn't behave so well.

But I'd also urge Mr. Perlstein to be careful. I realize he was giving a presentation at a conference, and so time is limited; there's only so much one can say, you can't include all the evidence you have...mainly you want to be sure everyone gets your thesis, so you state it very baldly. [sic—not ‘’badly’’] Still, his thesis as stated makes it sound as if, during the Nixon years, he believes almost all conservatives marched in lockstep with Nixon, defending nearly everything he did until finally the final bombshells exploded in August 1974, Nixon resigned, and even Nixon's defenders had to give up the ghost.

To that I'd say: whoa!! There's actually a lot of evidence showing that at least some conservatives---many?---were hardly prisoners on the Nixon bandwagon. Take NATIONAL REVIEW conservatives, for example. In 1960, NR saw Nixon as so liberal on domestic policy that the magazine didn't even endorse him for president vs Kennedy. In 1968, two prominent members of the NR editorial board, publisher William Rusher and senior editor Frank Meyer, were all for Reagan, not Nixon, for the GOP nomination, all the way to the convention. NR stayed neutral during the primaries. They and the magazine did indeed support Nixon vs Humphrey and Wallace in the fall election (no surprise there). And once Nixon became president, NR generally supported his judicial nominations, his stance on busing, and his Vietnam policies (the incursion into Cambodia, for instance).

But on domestic policy, it was a different story. Both Rusher, and especially Meyer, were sharply critical of Nixon's budgetary and spending policies, the sharp increases in spending for many welfare programs, Nixon's statement that "we are all Keynesians now", and so forth. Meyer was relentlessly critical of Nixon all through 1971, in both his NR columns and his work with such organizations as the American Conservative Union.

And _all_ NR conservatives were absolutely horrified at Nixon's decision to begin to normalize U.S. relations with communist China, and his decision to allow the UN to boot out Taiwan. William F. Buckley went with Nixon on his trip to China, and was rather pointed, often, in his criticism of Nixon; and many in NR supported the brief and ill-fated run of conservative congressman John Ashbrook against Nixon in the early 1972 Republican presidential primaries.

I'd also urge Mr. Perlstein to take a good look at the move by a number of conservatives--again, led by many at NR---to announce a "suspension of support" for Nixon. This occurred in July 1971, and got some attention, including some from the Nixon administration. It may have even wrung a few concessions on policy from Nixon.

As for Watergate: yes, many on the Right defended Nixon. But again, not all. You should look at William Rusher's writings. He had always been one of Nixon's sharpest critics, and he never wavered from them. But when it came to Watergate, he himself admitted that he tended to defend Nixon--not out of blind loyalty to the man, but because he believed that the charges against Nixon, and the way they were being pushed by Nixon's (often) liberal critics, were often unfair, partisan, and hypocritical. How can he be blamed for that?

And once the facts of Watergate began to become known, NATIONAL REVIEW for example was hardly blindly supportive of Nixon. After the Saturday Night Massacre of October 1973, for example, NR in its lead editorial (written by James Burnham, who tended to take the lead in NR's editorial-writing re: Watergate) was sharply critical of Nixon and pointed out that it was obvious that up to then he'd been doing everything he could to obstruct the Watergate investigation. By the time Nixon resigned, Buckley was referring to the "weak and devious men" that had made up the Nixon administration.

As for the present, the current relationship between conservatives and George W. Bush also defies easy, simple characterization in my view. Yes, conservatives have certainly supported W. on things like tax cuts, his response to 9/11, and the war in Iraq. But again, is it really fair to imply that many on the Right are abandoning principle and marching in lockstep with President Bush? They certainly seem to support the war on terror, and the actions in Iraq, on principle. And they've been critical of Bush. For example, remember campaign finance reform a few years ago? When Bush signed the campaign finance reform bill into law, many, many on the right were critical, and said so. Many conservatives think, and have said, that Bush hasn't done enough on the immigration issue. And my goodness, have we forgotten the Harriet Miers flap so soon??? Conservative opposition to Bush on the Miers nomination hardly suggests to me a movement marching in lockstep.

Don't get me wrong. Rick Perlstein is writing an important book, and I can't wait to read it. But I fear that the issues he's addressing are very complicated and complex; and the conservative movement both was, and is, more complicated in its makeup, more nuanced in its positions, and maybe has stuck far more to its principles, than Mr. Perlstein is giving it credit for. My $0.02...

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More Comments:

Walter McElligott - 1/7/2006

How could they not be? Thanx to tricky dick, Bush/Cheney learned too well.

Jim Good - 1/6/2006

Methinks Smant is jousting with a straw man. I suspect Perlstein's analysis is a bit more nuanced than Smant seems to assume.