The Nixon Watch

The signs and chants and songs said "Four More Years" and "Nixon Now, More than Ever," and in their idiotic way they provided a depressing indication of the kind of presidency that Richard Nixon is likely to give us in his second term. It predictably won't be very different from his first-term presidency unless more of the same, perhaps marked with a confident sense of rightness that was missing at the start of the Nixon tenure, is thought to constitute a meaningful difference. In the weeks between his renomination and his reelection, Mr. Nixon seemed to me to deny and defeat in advance of his victory whatever hopes there may have been that the mandate he sought and got would free him to be a more generous and compassionate, and in domestic affairs, a more creative President than he proved to be in the first term.

My own hopes along that line, and I had some, were dimmed well before the President in his few and cautious campaign utterances taught me once again (will I ever really learn?) that the qualities of generosity and compassion and true creativity that I as both citizen and journalist have wanted to discern in him simply are not there. The hopes faded when I went around the White House and its collateral offices, asking such assistants as I could get at what they expected from their President in a second tern, assuming that he was reelected by a missive popular and electoral majority. Was I right or wrong, perceptive or gullible, in my supposition that a big win just might have a liberating (not necessarily a liberalizing) effect upon the President? My concern in these interviews was with Mr. Nixon's domestic attitudes and intentions rather than with his foreign policy—not in a wish to minimize his foreign successes but in a belief that it is at home, dealing with the social ills and strains of the country, that the President will be principally tested and should be principally judged in his second term. The consensus among my small but reasonably representative cross-section of White House assistants was that I was wrong and gullible. They thought it odd, and one or two thought it laughable, that I should consider it even remotely possible that the scope of a Nixon victory would affect the President's approach to domestic problems and his conception of his responsibilities and challenges at home in any material way.

At this time, soon after his renomination and before the President had begun the little conventional campaigning that he deigned to undertake, I was told again and again at the White House that Mr. Nixon believed that his primary duty as President in a second term, abroad and at home but especially at home, would be to respond to the majority will as he interpreted it and to shape and limit his initiatives accordingly. Stated in the way it was put, excluding as it did any domestic initiatives that were presupposed to offend the will and preferences of Mr. Nixon's "new majority," this seemed to me to be a notably restricted view of presidential leadership. I expected that the President would at least pretend to take a broader view of his responsibilities when and if he addressed him-self to the subject for campaign purposes. In a broad- cast on October 21, in radio time bought for him by his Committee for the Reelection of the President, Mr. Nixon proved his assistants to be entirely correct. He said that he was setting forth "my philosophy of government, so that the American people will know the principles which will guide me in making decisions over the next four years." The speech is a "must" document for anyone who wants to know what to expect of the reelected President, and I here accord it the attention that it should have received and didn't when it was delivered.

Mr. Nixon framed his remarks in the context of what he called the "basic human values" of "good, decent people" who should stop "letting themselves be bulldozed by anybody who presumes to be the self-righteous moral judge of our society." People who resist higher taxes and "income redistribution," object to the busing of their children from neighborhood schools to other schools, and oppose employment quotas for the benefit of the previously disadvantaged ought not—he said—to be accused of selfishness, bigotry and racism. On the contrary, he said, their values are "values to be proud of—values that I shall always stand up for when they come under attack." In this context, he then said: "The rights of each minority must be vigorously defended —and each minority must be protected in the opportunity to have its opinion become accepted as the majority view. But on these basic concerns, the majority view must prevail, and leadership in a democracy is required to respond to that view." And again: "... you can be sure of this: on matters affecting basic human values—on the way Americans live their lives and bring up their children — I am going to respect and reflect the opinion of the people themselves."

The President's espousal of these sentiments obviously won him the votes of millions of "good, decent people" who believe with reason that their interests have been ignored and their values have been scorned in the name of social and racial reform. But Mr. Nixon did not stop there. With his usual genius for oblique and foggy indictment of those who differ with him, he suggested that a more positive leadership than the kind he offers may come only from arrogant types who "believe that the people just do not know what is good for them" and who "have more faith in government than they have in people." His mistaken and distorted view of the alternatives open to him was expressed in these terms: "A leader must be willing to take unpopular stands when they are necessary. But a leader who insists on imposing on the people his own ideas of how they should live their lives—when those ideas go directly contrary to the values of the people themselves —does not understand the role of a leader in a Democracy."

A President who supposes and in effect asserts that the only alternative to submission to the perceived will of the majority is the imposition of ideas that offend the majority does not understand the role of a leader in a democracy. By definition, a President who is so limited in his concept of the duties and powers of his office is not a leader. Presidents have very little power to impose. Trusted Presidents have immense power to persuade. Such a President might find it both necessary and feasible to tell his majority, as Mr. Nixon manifestly never will, that much of the opposition to higher taxes is selfish; that much of the resistance to busing for the integration of public schools is bigoted; and that racism is an element in much of the opposition to employment quotas for the benefit of black and other minorities. In the guise of respect for "the values of the people themselves," Mr. Nixon forgoes his duty and neglects his power to persuade the people who comprise his majority that the good of society may require measures that they do not welcome and have not mandated him to propose.

Much will be heard from the Nixon White House in the next few weeks, and much will be written, about the domestic programs that the reelected President in- tends to submit to Congress in 1973. Mr. Nixon will be preparing to test the proposition that the enormous popular majority conferred upon him by the electorate on November 7 gives him a leverage with the Democratic Congress that he has not previously had. The public will be suffocated with punditry to the effect that the leverage won't amount to much, given the election evidence that Mr. Nixon's appeal to the voters did other Republican candidates very little good and Democratic candidates for Congress very little harm. The President said over and over during the campaign that his first domestic purpose was to avoid new taxes and that he wasn't going to propose "bold new programs" that would require new or higher taxes. But neither the fiscal hold-down nor the possibility that Congress will pay less heed to his mandate than Mr. Nixon thinks it should is the factor chiefly making for a bleak and narrow second term, domestically speaking. The chief depressant is the reelected President's notion that leadership consists of determining what the majority wants and offering it nothing in the way of programs and ideas that he isn't sure it wants. Whatever else may be said for this conception of presidential responsibility, it is not a way to make the next four years "the best four years in the whole history of America."