THE BLOG
01/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will the Ghost of Richard Nixon Haunt the Obama White House?

No matter how far out you go into modern political history from 1972, the ghost of Richard Mihous Nixon, and his administration, follows U.S. presidents.

In Frost/Nixon, Frank Langella gives a very charitable and gentle film performance of one of the most dark and disturbed men ever to hold the White House. Nixon was a man obsessed with power, his personal image, and his place in history.

Nixon was not a nice guy. A friend, many years ago, told me that his brother, who was a Secret Service agent on the Nixon detail well after 1972, came into a bar after one particularly bad day and said: "That's a hard guy to want to take a bullet for."

It is ironic that for all of his attempts to be the major force in 20th century United States history, it would not be Nixon's meetings with the Chinese or the Russians that would put his imprint on the office, but his dirty tricks and criminal activities in the Pentagon and Watergate burglaries. They would create a special kind of ironic immortality: All modern presidencies post-Nixon have been, in some measure a reaction to, or a restoration of, elements of the imperial presidency of King Richard I. Look at each subsequent administration:

  • Gerald R. Ford, was brought in as V.P. after Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. His pardon of Tricky Dick may have landed him the Vice Presidency, or not. He may have done it to heal the country, or to cover up more of Nixon's dark empire. The bottom line was that being part of the Nixon Administration, albeit briefly, and the pardon were enough to sink him politically with a country looking for a change from Nixonian politics and the Vietnam War.


  • Jimmy Carter, who had moral turpitude on his side, was an incompetent leader both globally and domestically. His election was more a vote against Nixon and the corruption of the GOP than it was about the positives that he offered the country.


  • Ronald Reagan, hailed as the salvation of the Republican Party post-Nixon, really did little more than use the rising moral backlash to the 1960s and 1970s to put the blindly-obedient foot soldiers of the religious Right into the GOP grass roots. Their social crusade was a mask for the larger, darker objective.

    Once elected, as Reagan claimed that it was "morning in America," he restored the power to the military industrial wing of the party. Those Nixon heirs who were rapidly becoming known as Neo-Conservatives found a treasure chest of military spending and a restoration of the back-door politics of Nixon in Reagan policies like Iran-Contra. The Reagan administration also threw open the doors to the vast ocean of special interests who re-exerted their influence over Washington after their ouster under Carter.


  • George H.W. Bush kept the back-room alive and well. His mistake was to try to out-Nixon Nixon in foreign affairs, picking up the globe-trotting standard that Nixon carried into Russia and China. Bush Sr. lost sight of the domestic side of his office as a small wabble in the economy hit, which leads us to Bill Clinton.


  • Clinton was no less mired in the Nixon rebound. He, like Carter, was supposed to break the Republican grip on the halls of power. Instead, he became a Republican lightning rod. Clinton represented the evil liberal Left that dodged the draft and opposed the Viet Nam War. His personal foibles, real, as in Ms. Lewinsky, and imagined or unprovable, as in the millions spent by Ken Starr on the Whitewater investigation, kept his presidency tied up in knots. When he left office, and Gore lost the election in the Supreme Court, George W. Bush entered, and with him, the second coming of the Nixon admininstration.


  • W. and his Neo-Con buddies revived Nixonian Imperial presidency and ran with it. They used everything from 9/11 to the WMDs allegedy in Iraq to burps in the economy to scare the Congress and the American people into signing on to a whole slew of extra-constitutional, and flat-out unconstitutional policies where the White House wholly bypassed the United States Congress as it saw fit. From the Iraq War to the Wall Street Welfare program, the Imperial Presidency was alive and well.

    The difference between Nixon's time and Bush's was that, in the interim, the forces of the Right absorbed a huge chunk of the independent media through big corporate acquisitions, then systematically silenced it. The simple dumbing down of the news into an entertainment form was the start. The execution of the career of Dan Rather with a sucker story run into 60 minutes on Bush's alleged draft dodge finished the job.

    Religious conservatives, who thought that pushing for conservative judges pushed their narrow-minded litmus tests forward, discovered instead that jurists like Scalia and Rhenquist were far better at tinkering with minimizing the checks and balances of this government than dishing out knee-jerk policy on issues like abortion rights.

    Nixon's spirit was alive and well in a Bush Administration that made the Nixon Administration's constitutional crosses, corruption and cronyism look like a garden tea party.

  • The question is whether the ghost of Richard Nixon will continue to haunt the White House or not. There has not been a president like Barack Obama in these many years. Clinton was a partisan from the 60s, as was Carter. Obama is from outside that historical gridlock. He also has the understanding of history, and of the consitution, and the clarity of his thinking. If he can maintain his purpose, and his focus, then he might be the president who can exorcise the demons of Washington D.C. and release the dark spirit of Nixon from the government.

    The cynics and media wags put money against it, but it may finally be time to say goodnight to Richard Milhous Nixon, and the shadow government for which he stood. May rafts of devils sing thee to your rightfully deserved eternity, Tricky Dick.