Nixon’s example of sanity in Washington

This extended moment in history reminds me of Washington in the years leading up to and during the Civil War. In our political class at that time there was a kind of hysterical tension on all sides. The instability was so dramatic — Rep. Preston Brooks slapped Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856, poor Mary Todd Lincoln with her anger and manias, and her husband telling her she would end up in the asylum if she did so carry on. These are famous examples, but you cannot pick up a book about these days without seeing what appears to be real and widespread personal destabilization. There was a lot of self-medication, as they say. Living in the heart of the Washington establishment as the country broke up and in the capitals of the Confederacy as it formed, the journals and diaries of Mary Chesnut, recount continually of officers and politicians who came to her home to speak up in to drink the night, and the ladies and their laudanum. Something strange had been unleashed when things fell apart.

Richard Nixon congratulates John F. Kennedy during the inauguration ceremony as Lyndon B. Johnson looks on, January 20, 1961.


-/AFP via Getty Images

During the 2018 Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the demonstrations surrounding them, I began to think things were about to veer into Civil War territory — the hissing mob in a Senate office building where 293 were arrested; the screams as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee began his opening remarks; harassing senators in elevators; the surroundings of the Supreme Court and the scratching at its large bronze doors. I know the charges against Judge Kavanaugh were serious, I know they sparked passion on both sides, but that didn’t look to me like activism, which needs seriousness, maturity and discipline at its core to achieve something but like an untreated mental illness.

And then, of course, the January 6th uprising, the prime example of this strange new era.

Related to this are Ginni Thomas’ texts to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in the days following the 2020 election. They capture two characteristics of radicals on both sides, now and perhaps forever. First, they have extreme respect for their own emotions: if they feel it, it’s true. The other is that they tend to be stupid in the sense that they have little or no historical knowledge or the sense of proportion that such knowledge entails.

The lyrics were revealed last week by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and CBS News’ Robert Costa, and you’ve seen them. In the days following the election, Mrs. Thomas warned Mr. Meadows of “the greatest heist in our history.” There is evidence: “Watermarked ballots in over 12 states were part of a massive white hat operation by Trump and military in 12 key battleground states.” Justice Will Be Delivered: “Biden crime family & co-conspirators in voter fraud. . . will now and in the coming days be arrested and imprisoned on electoral fraud charges and will live in barges in front of GITMO to stand trial before military courts on sedition charges. “Don’t give in,” she warned him. “It takes time for the army to muster for his back.”

This is a person who lives at the heart of the Washington establishment and has had no proof of any of the wild things she says. But if you’re a conspirator, you see a grassy hillock everywhere. Of course, the chief of staff wrote back. “This is a battle between good and evil.” “Evil always looks victorious until the king of kings triumphs. Don’t get tired of doing good. The fight goes on.” He seems patronizing, speaking in a manner entirely consistent with Sinclair Lewis and the great American tradition of hucksters cloaking their swindles in the language of the Christian faith.

But it’s worth noting the focus of her obsession, the lingering belief in some quarters that Donald Trump truly won the 2020 election. Joe Biden won, not narrowly, but by seven million votes, and every challenge was thrown out of court, including by Trump-appointed judges.

Here we should remember the man who might have had a presidential election stolen but ended a stop-the-steal movement before it could get started. It was 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon versus Senator John F. Kennedy. It was the closest popular vote in the 20th century, with Kennedy receiving 34.2 million votes and Nixon 34.1 million, a margin of just under a sixth of a percentage point. Widespread fraud was suspected in Illinois and Texas, which had enough electoral votes to be decisive.

Nixon’s biographers did not usually agree with his political views—they were mostly fascinated liberals—but virtually all speak in relation to this chapter in his life. The best treatment is found in John Farrell’s very fine Richard Nixon: The Life. “In Chicago, voter fraud was a work of art,” writes Mr. Farrell. On that exciting election night, Mayor Richard J. Daley Kennedy called Hyannisport and said, “Mr. President, with any luck and the help of a few close friends, you will carry Illinois.”

As for Texas, everyone knew, as Robert Caro later noted, that Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s vice presidential nominee, had cabled the state with credible ballot box fraud charges dating back to 1948.

Theodore White, the journalist who helped invent the JFK myth, wrote in 1975 that no one will ever know who won in 1960, but in Illinois and Texas, Democratic “vote-stealing definitely took place on a large scale.”

Nixon believed the election was stolen. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen wanted him to challenge the results. Nixon thought it might take months and maybe not succeed, but his thoughts ran deeper. During the Cold War, in the nuclear age, internal and external unity was required. Young democracies have looked up to us. If they thought our elections could be stolen, it would hurt world morale.

The New York Herald Tribune had started an investigative series, but Nixon persuaded the reporter to drop it: “Our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis.”

In Evan Thomas’ lively “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” he reports that GOP sage Bryce Harlow urged Nixon to challenge, but Nixon said no: “It would tear the country apart. You can not.”

So he didn’t. On January 6, 1961, Nixon presided over the formal confirmation of his opponent’s election. “This is the first time in 100 years that a presidential candidate has announced the result of an election in which he was defeated and announced his opponent’s victory,” he said. “In our campaigns, the losers accept the verdict and support the winners, no matter how hard fought and how close the elections may be.”

For once, his colleagues honored this complicated man with a standing ovation that didn’t stop until Nixon bowed a second time.

The story continued and took its turns. Nixon came back and won the presidency in 1968. But if you’re reading all this, ask yourself: why can’t self-confessed patriots love America like that now — grown up, protective? And how important it is to know something about history, to know it so well that you can almost trust it. Instead of just feeling what you’re feeling and screwing things up.

Main Street (11/9/20): Where might Trump voters get the idea that a president is illegitimate? Images: Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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