Kennedy and Nixon

One of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen was the posthumous rehabilitation of Richard Nixon about fifteen years ago. Here was a man who resigned as President before Congress could throw him out, whose whole term in office was characterized by an all-consuming arrogance and a contempt for the law that wouldn’t be matched for at least thirty years, and yet all the news-network obituaries somehow managed to airbrush that out, and talked about his greatness as a statesman, etc. It was bad enough that Hunter Thompson’s over-the-top anti-eulogy was actually kind of refreshing.

The only thing since then that comes close was the recent haigography of Michael Jackson that managed to skip lightly over the past fifteen year of his career. It’s not quite as impressive a media achievement, though, because all Jackson was accused of was preying on helpless children.

Ted Kennedy died a couple of days ago, and as expected, this has led to a lot of tearful remembrances from liberals, and a lot of sophomoric jokes from conservatives. And a lot of hand-wringing about the sophomoric joking– I’ve seen several expressions of outrage at the Onion’s ridiculously tacky “News in Photos” item, for example.

It might be tempting to draw a parallel between the whitewashing of Nixon’s record and the glowing obits for Kennedy. Not for sophomoric conservative bloggers, of course– Nixon’s death was fifteen years ago, which means it might as well be in the epic of Gilgamesh as far as most political bloggers are concerned– but for people old enough to have a rudimentary sense of history. Both, after all, are important political figures whose public images were dominated by their character flaws, and both are having those flaws minimized in the aftermath of their deaths.

I don’t think this holds up, though. While there are superficial similarities, the two are dramatically different when it comes to how their character affected their jobs.

Kennedy’s personal failings were many and well-documented, but at the end of the day, they remained personal failings. They were more than enough to derail any greater ambitions he may have had (I remember a conservative friend in college gleefully storyboarding the attack ads the Republicans would use if Kennedy ever ran for President), but they ultimately had little effect on his performance in the Senate. Whatever went wrong in his personal life, he was unquestionably a tremendously effective Senator, and it’s hard to find anything in his legislative legacy that you could seriously say was adversely affected by his personal issues.

Nixon’s personal failings, on the other hand, were miniature versions of his professional failings. He was a paranoid, vindictive, bigoted, unpleasant little man, and his administration was paranoid, vindictive, bigoted, and unpleasant. His character flaws led directly to his conducting a criminal conspiracy in the Oval Office, running a burglary and cover-up in an attempt to gain a trivial advantage in an election he would’ve won by a huge margin without any skullduggery. His contempt for the rule of law was breathtaking, and he enthusiastically embraced tactics in and around Vietnam that were, frankly, criminal.

And we know this because his petty paranoia was so great that he bugged his own office, recording the conversations that sealed his political fate because he somehow imagined that his enemies could do worse. It’s hard to see how, but that’s what he thought.

Ted Kennedy had his flaws, but they remained separate from his political career. Richard Nixon’s flaws basically defined his entire political career. That’s why it’s tacky-bordering-on-offensive to dwell too much on Kennedy’s personal failings in the wake of his death, and it was tacky-bordering-on-offensive to fail to mention Nixon’s.

(This is also, by the way, why the Clinton and Nixon impeachments are not equivalent. Clinton was impeached for personal mistakes that did not affect his performance of his job. Nixon was impeached precisely because of what he did on the job.)

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    August 27, 2009

    This is also, by the way, why the Clinton and Nixon impeachments are not equivalent. Clinton was impeached for personal mistakes that did not affect his performance of his job. Nixon was impeached precisely because of what he did on the job.

    Technically Nixon was never impeached, because he resigned before the full House could vote on the articles of impeachment which had passed the House Judiciary Committee. But it is worth noting that every member of the Judiciary Committee, even the Republicans, voted for at least one of the articles of impeachment. Clinton, like Andrew Johnson, was impeached for purely factional reasons.

    The point is that Nixon crossed a line in his professional life, and even his supporters understood that that line existed. Kennedy and Clinton may have crossed lines in their personal lives, but as you say, that was separate from their professional lives.

  2. #2 Ronit
    August 27, 2009

    Nixon was never impeached.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    August 27, 2009

    Nixon was as impeached as you can get without being impeached. Nixon was not impeached like Goring never stood trial an Nuremberg beause he offed himself before the entire processed was finished. Jeesh…

    Anyway, Chad, excellent essay. There is a meaningful, fudnemental, and important difference between “Party Animal” and “Evil Plot to Take Over the World” or at least subvert the Constitutional process for personal/political gain.

  4. #4 Ahcuah
    August 27, 2009

    Two points:

    Another difference between Nixon and Kennedy is that, after he was disgraced, Nixon never did anything of (good) consequence again. If anything, all he tried to do was ass-covering. Kennedy, on the other hand, after Chappaquiddick, matured and accomplished a lot.

    Regarding the Onion piece: yes, it’s pretty tasteless, but it is funny. Often, right-wingers will make something they claim is a joke and nobody laughs, and then say people don’t have a sense of humor. No, it’s not that, it’s that they just don’t know funny. The Onion piece shows how you can make a joke against a lefty and still be funny. Really funny.

  5. #5 JohnV
    August 27, 2009

    What made me laugh at the onion picture and caption was the fact that idiots are actually bringing up the “Kennedy curse”. Which, I gather, was the onion’s point.

    Sigh… it seems like this comes up periodically, satire attacked by people who either don’t or can’t realize that is satire.

  6. #6 Uncle Al
    August 27, 2009

    John Kennedy screwed everything female. Robert Kennedy screwed whomever he was told to screw. Ted Kennedy like his father Joe screwed everybody, stole their wallets, and laughed.

    Look at your paycheck before and after taxation and fees. The difference is Ted Kennedy and his social conscience. How many Browns and Blacks lived within a mile radius of the Kennedy compound (that were not employed as servants)?

    Ted Kennedy was the Hyena of the Senate. Richard Nixon was no worse than any explicit Company man of his times – criminal, bitter, competent, and clad in a skinny black tie.

  7. #7 dean
    August 27, 2009

    and uncle al shows once again he is a moron.

  8. #8 Josh S
    August 27, 2009

    Ironically, the Kennedy who most matched Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks political style was JFK. Allegations of ballot-stuffing, illegal wiretappings, a huge supporter of Senator McCarthy, etc. What a difference getting caught or not makes.

    I don’t know if you’re completely right about Ted though. Not to speak ill of a man while his body is still warm, but people seem to forget that prior to his second marriage, a lot of people thought he was on the verge of self-destructing. He was basically a warm body filling a seat, but had lost his ability to really lead within his party. It doesn’t rise to the level of criminal or impeachable activity, but you can’t say it didn’t affect his performance in the Senate.

    And those who want to focus on his flaws should give at least some consideration to the fact that three of his siblings died while still young. I don’t know who WOULDN’T be tempted to seek solace in illicit ways after losing all of their big brothers.

  9. #9 Josh S.
    August 27, 2009

    One more thought. Should the effect ones flaws had on their career really be the only measure of their legacy? To use your Michael Jackson example, Jackson’s purported pedophilia had no effect on his music, but shouldn’t predatory behavior still matter in assessing the man? Clinton’s attitude towards his marriage and wife was abominable, but I agree it has very little effect on his legacy, in large measure because the women were willing participants. Kennedy, on the other hand, propositioned young girls, sexually harrassed unwilling women, and did other things that bordered on criminality. I think there comes a point where your private life can no longer be argued to be completely private. That point seems to me to land somewhere uncomfortably near to Kennedy’s location for much of his adult life.

  10. #10 katydid13
    August 27, 2009

    Ted Kennedy was a fairly deeply flawed man, who was an exectional US Senator. His ability to find common, if imperfect ground, across the aisle is going to be deeply missed.

    It’s not entirely fair to say that Bill Clinton’s mistakes were entirely private. People seem to forget that Monica Lewinsky was his employee as an intern. There was a gigantic imblance of power. There relationship would have been inappropriate in almost any workplace in the country. That’s not to say that it rose to the level of an impeachable offense, but it wasn’t entirely private either.

  11. #11 Gerard Harbison
    August 27, 2009

    Kennedy’s ‘personal failings’ included allowing a young woman to slowly suffocate in an air pocket in the floor well of the back seat of his mostly submerged 67 Olds, with experienced rescue personnel merely minutes away, while he desperately tried to cover up the incident.

    Of course, only ‘sophomoric conservatives’ even find this worth remembering.

  12. #12 D. C. Sessions
    August 27, 2009

    Another difference between Nixon and Kennedy is that, after he was disgraced, Nixon never did anything of (good) consequence again. If anything, all he tried to do was ass-covering.

    Not nearly. It might be said of Nixon that his greatest accomplishments were after he left public life. The books aren’t perfect, but they’re damned instructive. Pretty much every President — of both parties — and many others have credited him with extremely valuable analyses and advice.

    Apparently, for Nixon, his biggest public liability was that he was personally involved. Once he could play Machiavellian advisor his vision cleared. Still a bastard, mind, but a bastard worth listening to. One wonders how much Hannibal Lechter reflects him.

  13. #13 CCPhysicist
    August 27, 2009

    Come on folks. Nixon was impeached by the House. He was going to be convicted by the Senate (Goldwater told him that) and hence resigned. Clinton and Johnson were both impeached, but neither was convicted and served out their terms.

    @9: I don’t believe there is any evidence that Kennedy propositioned young girls, but there is plenty of evidence that he went after young women when he was in his 30s.

    @11: No, even unabashed liberals find this worth remembering, just as we remember that he was punished for it by the legal system. There are many other cases in history where people were murdered as a result of official acts (by both liberals and conservatives) where no one was punished. What set Ted Kennedy apart is that his public work was held in high regard by both liberals and conservatives. Read what McCain said, as just one example.

    As for tasteless, the all time classic was the National Lampoon “ad” parody saying that Ted Kennedy would be President if he had only been driving a VW. Check it out, you young whippersnappers …

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TeddyVWad.jpg

    … and remember that this came from people who were also ripping Nixon a new one! Those were the days. The Daily Show wouldn’t touch anything like that one.

  14. #14 Pseudonym
    August 28, 2009

    WARNING: The video in this link contains strong language and Australian cultural references. But I think it makes the point well nonetheless.

  15. #15 David Kane
    August 28, 2009

    Our discussion about this at EphBlog is not (yet) focussed enough to merit your attention. It would help if you could provide at least one example of a “tacky-bordering-on-offensive” article/obituary/whatever about Kennedy. Without specifics, it is tough to understand the merit of your argument.

  16. #16 Josh S.
    August 28, 2009

    #13
    -There was a famous and lengthy GQ article written about Ted Kennedy back in the 90’s. Two girls (Capital pages in their teens) described the Senator pulling up in his limo and asking them to “join him for dinner”. Heresay, yes, but very much in line with his character before the wife straightened him out.
    -He was given a suspended sentence, so yes, technically he was “punished” by the legal system, but in any way that insults the phrase “slap on the wrist”. As far as I know, they never even bothered to go through the farce of fining him. I guess that would’ve been too stiff a punishment for a Kennedy in Massachussets.

  17. #17 IBY
    August 28, 2009

    I don’t know a lot about Nixon, since I am was born in the 90. But the best thing I remember about that man, other than his idiotic scandal at the end, was his participation in the McCarthyism witch hunt. Why one would eulogize such a man, I don’t know.

  18. #18 Isabel
    August 29, 2009

    “To use your Michael Jackson example, Jackson’s purported pedophilia had no effect on his music, but shouldn’t predatory behavior still matter in assessing the man?”

    Yes.

    “Kennedy’s ‘personal failings’ included allowing a young woman to slowly suffocate in an air pocket in the floor well of the back seat of his mostly submerged 67 Olds, with experienced rescue personnel merely minutes away, while he desperately tried to cover up the incident.”

    Count me in with those who can’t get past this. He didn’t do anything to save her because he was worried about his career. That is not a ‘failing’, like chasing young women, or being an unfaithful husband, it’s sociopathic. WTF am I missing here?

    “I don’t know a lot about Nixon, since I am was born in the 90. But the best thing I remember about that man, other than his idiotic scandal at the end, was his participation in the McCarthyism witch hunt. Why one would eulogize such a man, I don’t know.”

    Actually, his biggest “accomplishment” was starting the Drug War on the American people, that continues, and continues to escalate, to this day.

  19. #19 llewelly
    August 29, 2009

    And we know this because his petty paranoia was so great that he bugged his own office …

    Actually, the system he used was installed by President Kennedy. When the “Nixon tapes” were finally released, they came with lots of recordings made by LBJ and JFK, as well as Nixon. JFK, apparently, was judicious and kept the system off most of the time. LBJ frequently forgot it was on, and made many unintentionally amusing recordings, such as the one in which he orders a new pair of pants, which includes a hilarious description of what’s wrong with his current pair, and what he wants done to the upcoming pair. Nixon, of course, made recordings obsessively, recording a great deal of his criminal behavior.

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