BOOKS + IDEAS
ON CONSERVATIVE INTELLECTUALS AND RICHARD NIXON:
AN INTERVIEW WITH HISTORIAN SARAH K. MERGEL
By G. Arnold
Richard M. Nixon was one of the most influential and puzzling figures in American politics of the twentieth century. His legacy looms so large that it is often easy to gloss over his complexities. A deeply intelligent and astute politician, he was nonetheless a polarizing figure.
Sarah K. Mergel, a professor at Dalton State College in Georgia, specializes in American political and intellectual history. She has studied Nixon and the Conservative Movement in detail. Now she has a new book, Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon (Palgrave Publishers, 2010), which reconsiders the complicated relationship between Nixon and other conservative leaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As her book reveals, it’s a fascinating story.
Having known Sarah K. Mergel from her previous essays in Bread and Circus, we thought it would be interesting to ask if she could tell us a bit more about her book and the ideas in it. Here is what she had to say.
Bread and Circus: Your new book touches on important aspects of American political history. Can you tell us what it’s about and why you decided to write it?
Sarah K. Mergel: Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon explores the relationship between postwar conservatives and the president from 1968 to 1974. The more I read about the growth of the conservative movement after World War II, the more I realized that the conservatives would rather forget their experience with Richard Nixon. They failed to see how his presidency helped refocus their fight against liberalism and communism. Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon uses the Nixon years as a window into the right’s effort to turn their ideas into a program more voters could relate to. It combines an assessment of Nixon’s presidency through the eyes of conservative intellectuals with an attempt to understand what the right gained from its experience with one of the most interesting American presidents in the twentieth century.
B&C: Richard Nixon was a man of great intelligence and political skill. His long political career had many highs and lows. As someone who has spent considerable time studying Nixon and his influence, what do you think is the most important thing that we should understand about Nixon, the politician?
Sarah K. Mergel: Ever since Watergate traumatized the nation, people have been trying to understand Richard Nixon. Based on my own study of Nixon, I think the answer is pretty simple. Everything he did during his long public life, especially after he became president, looked to his historical legacy. At heart Nixon was a practical politician; he made choices throughout his career that he thought would enhance how people would view his contribution to American life. Nixon never expected to be mired in a scandal that would do so much damage to his reputation at the time or in the future.
B&C: Looking back at his long and remarkable career, what do you think was Nixon’s most important success?
Sarah K. Mergel: I cannot point to one policy or action that Richard Nixon took that stands out as his most important success. However given the length of his political career from the late 1940s until his death in the 1990s, probably his most important success was that he was a survivor. Nixon managed to rebuild his career more times than any politician that comes to my mind.
B&C: Although people often talk about conservatism and liberalism, it seems there is not always agreement on what labels mean. How should we understand “conservatism” in the context of the era you discuss in your book?
Sarah K. Mergel: Conservatives essentially called for three things before and during the Nixon era. First, they wanted a strong national defense to prevent the spread of communism. Second, they promoted what they considered a greater respect for tradition and order. Finally, they wanted a less influential federal government in terms of social and economic policy. Simply put, they did not share the liberal’s belief that the government could or should solve all of society’s problems. They did believe that the government should protect American citizens from totalitarian threats.
B&C: Your book talks about Nixon’s relationship with the changing conservative movement. What kind of relationship was that?
Sarah K. Mergel: Richard Nixon knew he needed the support of the conservative movement as well as what he would later call the silent majority to win in 1968. In large part, Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy because conservatives within the Republican Party would not vote for him. The right supported him in 1968 because they thought he supported conservative policy solutions. Nevertheless, his relationship with the movement remained tenuous well into his presidency. In some instances he tried to win its support by making connections with conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk. But as much as conservative intellectuals wanted to believe Richard Nixon leaned to the right they always doubted his loyalty to their cause. To some extent, their doubt was well placed since he went against almost every conservative principle he pledged to uphold in 1968. He courted the conservatives when he needed them and ignored them much of the rest of the time. Richard Nixon used the conservative movement; however in the end the conservatives benefitted more from their strained relationship than did the president.
B&C: What was the biggest effect that Nixon had on the conservative movement?
Sarah K. Mergel: The conservatives widely supported Richard Nixon in 1968 and so they expected that once he took office they would have a good relationship with his administration and his policies would move the nation to the right. Since neither of these hopes came true, conservatives began to redefine their movement by distancing themselves from Richard Nixon and his policies. Essentially the biggest effect Nixon had on the conservative movement was not anything he did, but what he did not do. His failure to live up to their expectations prompted leading conservatives to no longer accept the closest thing to a conservative who could win an election (as they did in 1968). The right learned to stay true to their ideology when choosing a candidate. Their dedication paid off—in their opinion—when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980.
B&C: Among leading conservatives, who do you think were some of those most affected by Nixon and his presidency? How so?
Sarah K. Mergel: Conservative politicians — like Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurmond — seemed less affected by Richard Nixon’s presidency than conservative intellectuals –like William F. Buckley, Jr., James Burnham, and William Rusher. The bitter disappointment felt by those intellectuals working with National Review and other conservative publications led them to rethink in some ways how they approached politics, especially future presidential races. More than anything else, conservative intellectuals and strategists realized they would have to work harder to make conservatism an acceptable political choice as opposed to something seen as a reactionary political choice. They also needed to branch out to groups not previously identified as political conservatives like disaffected liberals and evangelical Christians.
B&C: Looking at it the other way, who, if anybody, among the leading conservatives, influenced Nixon the most?
Sarah K. Mergel: Richard Nixon always seemed to want the respect of the intellectual community—both right and left—and yet he seemed to do everything possible to push them away. On the conservative side, when he took office he had a decent relationship with William F. Buckley, Jr. and Milton Friedman. However, to say that these men or any other conservative intellectual influenced Richard Nixon long term would be a stretch. At various points in his career he embraced right-leaning ideas but in the end Nixon was always his own greatest influence.
B&C: When, in your book, you talk about the Right’s effort to turn ideology into successful politics, what do you mean?
Sarah K. Mergel: The Right, in the years after World War II, began to outline their challenge to liberalism and communism and it seemed to leading conservatives no one was listening. Partly because of the social changes social changes in the 1960s and partly because of Richard Nixon’s presidency the right learned to how to promote their ideas to a wider public. Not only did they learn to sell those ideas to the people, but they learned how to see their candidates elected to public office. Conservative Richard Weaver once talked about ideas having consequences; what the Right learned from their experience with Richard Nixon was to how to show people those consequences.
B&C: Finally, what is the most important thing that you think people should take away after reading your book?
Sarah K. Mergel: National Review publisher William Rusher called the conservative decision to support Richard Nixon the “blunder of 1968.” The idea that Nixon’s presidency somehow setback the conservative movement seems wrong. When wage and price controls failed to curb inflation in the 1970s and détente failed to bring world peace, conservatives (who had been questioning those policies from the beginning) benefitted. The most important thing to take away from Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon seems to me that sometimes in politics your biggest blunder can turn into your greatest advantage.
Sarah K. Mergel’s Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon will be released by Palgrave Publishers in early 2010.
G. Arnold is an editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and the author of several books, including Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics and The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam.
Image (above): National Archives photograph (unrestricted) of a Nixon campaign trip in 1972.