Richard Nixon rehabilitated his image - can Donald Trump do the same?
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By Elizabeth Drew
Presidents Donald Trump and Richard Nixon both left Washington in helicopters and ignominy, awash in financial problems and their customary self-pity. Both were above-average paranoiacs who felt (with some justification) that the elites looked down on them and that enemies everywhere sought to undermine them; they despised the press, exploited racism for political purposes and used inept outside agents (the "plumbers," Rudy Giuliani) to carry out their more nefarious plots. Neither was inclined to let aides rein them in. Both were impeached for trying to manipulate the opposition party's nomination contest. Both degraded the presidency. Both came unglued at the end.
But then, astonishingly, Nixon rehabilitated himself. He methodically worked his way into the rarefied circles where he coveted approval, and he won over a large if far-from-universal segment of the public. Nixon's post-presidency was a quest to make himself respectable again - and it worked. He landed in 1974 at his Spanish-style San Clemente, California, home essentially friendless, deeply depressed, unwell (a bad case of phlebitis), and beset by huge legal fees and back taxes. Through wit, grit, wiliness and determination he wrought one of the greatest resurrections in American politics.
If he could do it, can Trump?
For all their similarities, Nixon and Trump clearly are very different men. For one thing, Nixon was smart, and he was interested in the substance of governing; he studied white papers and was conversant in most topics the government touched. The only policies that seemed to interest Trump were those that served his (and his friends') concerns - lowering taxes on the wealthy and rolling back regulations - and those (like the border wall and other anti-immigration measures) that signalled to his base that he'd maintain white supremacy. Having served as a congressman, senator and vice president, Nixon essentially understood the Constitution and limits, even if he overreached at times. When he lost a painfully close election in 1960, Nixon accepted defeat (after having allies check out the possibility of victory by recount in a few states).
Nixon knew about comebacks. In 1962, after he lost a race for California governor, he told reporters, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore." The political world assumed he was finished. But victory over setbacks was his watchword: His first memoir, "Six Crises," portrayed his life as a series of triumphs over adversity. He was one of four people in American history who lost a race for the presidency and later won one.
And so, after he returned to California, the determined and methodical former president, along with the staff he brought with him, drafted "Wizard," a detailed plan to regain respectability and even, if possible, become a senior statesman, a sage. Domestic policy bored Nixon, and he understood that lectures on the budget or the environment wouldn't attract the interest of the businessmen and Brahmins he was courting. So he decided that the best way to attain his goal of respectability was to emphasize his credentials as a foreign policy expert, a man known to world leaders.
He began making attention-getting trips around the globe - to Europe, to China - and upon his return he would, unbidden, send a memo recording his observations and proffering advice to the sitting president, and also release it to the press. Like a senior statesman, he attended the funerals of foreign leaders, whether or not he was invited. In a reaction that may be repeated in the near future, other Republican leaders resented his showboating and efforts to crowd into their roles. They wished he would just go away. He was done in electoral politics (and unwelcome at Republican conventions), but he informed himself about what was going on, district by district, and called candidates and campaign managers with suggestions.
First, to make money, came another memoir, "RN" (he was a devotee of Theodore Roosevelt, or T.R.), written with the help of the government-paid aides who had accompanied him to California. It was a runaway best seller. Then, and after a while, came carefully laid plans to give speeches in prestigious places. The first, in 1978, was at the Oxford Union,the world-famous British debating society, where Nixon was greeted with boos but ended up receiving enthusiastic applause. His speeches around the country - given without notes or a lectern, just him with his sonorous voice and air of authority (not the nervous, sniffling, wriggling figure of Watergate) - focused mainly on world leaders he had known.
After a while, Nixon tired of his California isolation and decided that he could advance the Wizard plan by moving to New York. Co-op boards blackballed him, so he purchased an Upper East Side townhouse, where he hosted what became famous dinners of Chinese food, served by Chinese waiters, amid Chinese decor (lest anybody forget his breakthrough trip there in 1972). To the dinners came New York's pooh-bahs - bankers and publishers and elder statesmen. Invitations became sought-after social currency, and attendees bragged all over town. He went to baseball games and dined at the chicest restaurants. Richard Nixon became the toast of New York.
In 1979, Gallup named Nixon one of the 10 most admired people in the world. He wrote op-eds for major newspapers and wangled summonses from presidents to brief them on dealing with the Soviet Union and other world issues. To President Jimmy Carter's dismay, Nixon used his high-level contacts with Chinese officials to get himself invited to the White House state dinner for Chinese leaders on their first visit to the United States. He essentially blackmailed President Bill Clinton, warning that if the young president didn't invite him for a briefing before a 1993 summit with Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin, he'd author an op-ed attacking Clinton's foreign policy. (Clinton received Nixon at night.)
Clearly, many of these avenues will be closed to Trump. He lacks discipline, intellectual rigour and the doggedness Nixon used to pull himself up from the bottom. But Trump has one advantage Nixon didn't, even after the assault on the Capitol this month: a large and fanatically devoted following. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Jan. 15,79 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents still approved of his performance. Trump of course had the backing of Fox News, and although the intensity of adulation there has diminished of late, the network still supported the Trump line about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol (for example, that it was spawned by a left-wing group). There was no such thing as Fox News in Nixon's day.
Trump still has the support of fringe networks like One America News and Newsmax, even if he has been suspended from Twitter and Facebook, the major vehicles for his propaganda. Trump is unlikely to be able to place op-eds in mainstream newspapers if they're full of lies. It's hard to imagine that a memoir or an interview series like the lucrative and attention-grabbing one Nixon gave to David Frost would do much for a famous blabbermouth whose opinions are ill-founded and overly familiar.
If Trump is canny enough and has the energy, he will have already begun devising ways to heal his battered reputation with much of the public and, in particular, the Republican politicians who indulged him for years. But unlike Nixon, Trump faces a paradox: How can he maintain the support of his rabble-rousing followers, particularly if he wants to run again in 2024 or simply remain a force in in the GOP, while building respectability among the broader public?
* Drew is the author of "Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall."
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.