Richard M. Nixon has been dead now for 22 lonely, unkickable years. But the long shadow of the Tricky One continues to loom over American history. To use another sensory metaphor, it’s like a tape you just can’t shut off.
The latest sign of the spectre: Donald Trump.
On Tuesday night, the presumed Republican presidential nominee became the actual Republican presidential nominee.
Now he’s got a campaign to run. And he’s going to start in 1968, he said in an interview.
“I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first,” Trump said. “The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”
So Nixon’s going to be his One.
Now, I’m fascinated by Nixon. I think he may be the most brilliant man ever to serve as president. Unfortunately, he may have been the most troubled man to hold the office as well. That’s including Franklin Pierce, who at least had the excuse of losing his 11-year-old son to a horrible train accident just two months after his election.
Nixon was a foreign policy chess master with nimble — and brutal — political instincts. He created some necessary federal agencies and used other agencies to bring down his opponents. He symbolized triumph — was there ever anything more ecstatic than Nixon with his double-V-for-Victory hands held high? — and wallowed in defeat.
He’s positively Shakespearean: smart, awkward, petty, ruthless, clever, strange, incisive and paranoid. Sometimes all at once. (He was also a caricaturist’s dream.)
That’s the thing about Nixon. There was, perhaps, greatness within him. There was certainly intelligence. He knew how to play the game. (He made thousands of dollars playing poker during World War II — enough to fund his first campaign. And politics ain’t beanbag, either.) But Mr. “Bring Us Together” couldn’t keep his demons from pulling him apart, and Watergate — the whole ball of wax, the nasty comments and dirty tricks and constitutional subversion — ended up summing up the man.
(Asked the basis for the sinister Emperor Palpatine, George Lucas said he had one person in mind: “He was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name.”)
In 1968, Nixon put the “Southern strategy” into play. It’s a game plan the GOP is still using almost 50 years later.
Now, here comes Donald Trump. Inheritor of millions. Teller of tales. The antiestablishment vessel into which countless citizens have poured their anger, their wishes, their dreams. Ironic that he would be the heir to the scrambling Nixon, a lifelong politician, even if he was never part of the club.
To borrow a line from Lloyd Bentsen, Donald Trump, you’re no Richard Nixon.