IT'S HARD to think of Richard M. Nixon, the disgraced 37th president, as a liberal. But except for his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon oversaw the greatest expansion of the federal government since 1945. Thirty-two years ago this month, Nixon signed into law a civil rights act that extended voting rights protection to minorities living in the North, Latinos, and 18-year-olds. This anniversary provides a unique opportunity to re-examine liberalism - Nixon style.
The Voting Rights Act of 1970 was a tip of the iceberg. The catalog of programs that Nixon initiated or accepted is little known to most Americans, but includes the "war on cancer," the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Office of Consumer Affairs, Amtrak and "revenue sharing" with local governments.
Nixon carried out the war against Vietnam mercilessly, but he ended the draft and formed an all-volunteer army. He provided unprecedented federal funding of the arts. The president also reorganized the Postal Service, proposed a sweeping overall of welfare, backed employer-mandated national health insurance long before the Clintons, and imposed wage and price controls on the economy.
The image of Nixon as a foul-mouthed reactionary, colored by recently released White House tapes, persists despite his flagrant liberal tendencies. These tendencies are further evident in Nixon's civil rights policies. There is little doubt that the president he was prejudiced against African-Americans and women, and that he wooed conservative Southern whites to enhance his re-election prospects. But his personal belief in equal opportunity along with pressure from federal courts, a Democratic-controlled Congress, the liberal wing of his Republican Party and civil rights advocates led him to be more active in this area than his critics have been willing to concede.
Hardly "alone in the White House," as the Richard Reeves suggests in the title of his most recent book, President Nixon: Alone in the White House, Nixon heeded advice from liberal staff members and pursued a moderate policy agenda, belying his much-publicized, often-discussed "Southern strategy."
He approved hiring goals for minorities and women and promoted set-asides for minority-owned businesses, making him, as the civil rights leader James Farmer put it, the "strongest president on affirmative action - up to that point."
Nixon pumped federal dollars into historically black colleges, signed Title IX legislation to expand women's access to higher education, and changed the direction of Native American policy to enhance self-determination for tribes. Most surprising, 15 years after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision, it was the Nixon administration, during 1969 and 1970, that finally desegregated public schools in the South.
Why did Nixon support such a wide-ranging campaign of federal activity? To begin with, he was philosophically a moderate Republican, a member of that dying breed of politicians who were inclined to use governmental power for targeted purposes, such as ensuring equal opportunity and social mobility. He had little love for orthodox conservatives who were, throughout much of his public career, the Republican Party's "weakest link." In 1965, Nixon told aide John C. Whitaker that the trouble with right-wing conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. was that "they really don't give a damn about people, and voters sense that."
"Remember, John," Nixon went on, "the far-right kooks are just like the nuts on the left; they're doorbell ringers and balloon blowers, but they turn out to vote. There is only one thing as bad as [a] far-left liberal, and that's a damn right-wing conservative."
Nixon dismissed leaders of the Young Americans for Freedom, who were opposing his rapprochement with China, as "nuts and second-raters."
His pragmatism prevented him from becoming a right-wing Republican. His pre-presidential career, covering 1946 to 1968 from congressman to vice president, spanned an age when Democrats expanded the welfare state and national Republican leaders accepted popular federal programs.
As President Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president, Nixon privately praised programs such as Social Security for making "important contributions to our society."
He wrote that a proposed campaign by big business to revise labor legislation was "nuts," and quietly opposed cuts in agricultural and veterans programs as "dangerous politically."
Doubting that voters wanted a purely conservative agenda, Nixon directed aides to "go gung-ho for blue-collar Catholics but not [with a] hard-right reactionary philosophy." He agreed with John D. Ehrlichman, his top domestic policy adviser, that the wisest political course lay in an middle-of-the-road agenda of conservative and liberal programs.
Nixon also knew that great presidents acted boldly, at home as well as abroad. In February 1969, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman jotted in his diary that Nixon was "determined to show action, be different" in domestic affairs.
Haldeman's entry for March 11, 1969, reveals that liberal White House assistants were trying to restrain the president: "Moynihan points out that he can't have a Domestic program. Not any money available, and politically impossible anyway. Better just to try to get rid of the things that don't work, and try to build up the few that do."
Presidential speech writer Pat Buchanan, an unflinching conservative, once lamented that Nixon never would "satisfy" the "hard-right ideologues" because he "is an activist in domestic policy."
Why has the public remained unaware of this liberal Nixon? The answer partly lies in the president's deviousness. Nixon muffled his liberal initiatives to maintain his appeal among conservative whites in the South and in Northern suburbs. As Southerners prepared for school desegregation during the fall of 1970, the president reminded aides not to get "sucked into praising our 'great record.' ... Low profile is the key." In so doing, Nixon, this allegedly masterful politician, outsmarted himself, keeping the best part of his presidency hidden for future generations to discover.
Dean J. Kotlowski is assistant professor of history at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore. His book, "Nixon's Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy," was published in December by Harvard University Press.