David Greenberg: In Nixon’s Tricks, Rove’s Roots and a Blueprint for Bush

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg, an assistant professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., is the author of three books, “Nixon’s Shadow,” “Presidential Doodles” and, most recently, “Calvin Coolidge.” He writes the “History Lesson” column for Slate.]

If you’re a political junkie with Internet access looking for cheap laughs — and if you’re reading this column, you probably are — take a minute, go to YouTube and search for “Nixon” and “Rove.”

Your query will yield a 1972 CBS news segment on Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign. At the four-minute mark — not long after a passing mention of “an electric paper-shredding machine, to destroy secret campaign documents,” located “just out of sight” at Nixon headquarters — we meet the soft-cheeked, thick-sideburned 21-year-old Rove. Already the director of the College Republicans, Rove speaks with evident polish, touting the campaign’s youth outreach effort.

However amusing the interview with Rove (done by Dan Rather), the operative’s role in Nixon’s 1972 organization — the one that brought us Watergate — is more than a curiosity. Rove has recently found himself in legal peril again, this time alleged to have sought to politicize the non-partisan General Services Administration, along with scrutiny for his part in the firings of eight United States attorneys. The reminder of his roots in Nixon’s anything-to-win political machine is telling.

When George W. Bush became president, the smart money pegged him as Ronald Reagan redux. Bill Keller, now the executive editor of The New York Times, persuasively laid out the case in a nearly 8,000-word piece for the Sunday Magazine titled “Reagan’s Son.” The two men, he pointed out, had similar political agendas in cutting social services and taxes on the rich and projecting American military power abroad. They also shared a management style, establishing their administrations’ big picture while delegating details.

In his ideology and his policies, Bush’s debt to Reagan has been borne out. (Conservative purists back in the day even accused Reagan, as they do Bush now, of betraying their principles when he became unpopular.) In other ways, however — Bush’s political style, his attitudes toward executive power, and his contempt for democratic procedures — it has been clear for many years now that his real role model is Nixon.

The resemblances could fill a magazine article as long as Keller’s. Both Bush and Nixon, resentful of the supposed cultural dominance of liberals, perfected a conservative populism that vilifies academics, journalists, bureaucrats and other professionals as out-of-touch elites. Both men, hostile to the news media, rigidly prescribed the messages that their staffers could take to the press. Both vaunted secrecy, restricted access to information, and politicized areas of the government once deemed the province of non-partisan experts....

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