The Nixon I Saw

Washington, D.C., 1969-1971

After over 25 years, we still read new accounts of discoveries of supposed Nixon chicanery as more White House “Watergate” tapes are reviewed. The ultimate picture is that of a man who evidently spent his entire time in the Presidency in either planning or doing evil deeds. Still there is always some notation that Nixon made great strides for this country in the field of foreign relations. Very little, if any, mention is made of the fact that in the 1969-1974 years of Nixon’s Presidency more socially valuable domestic legislation was either enacted or readied for enactment than in the entire following thirty-two years.

Obviously, there was much more to Nixon’s leadership than that of a single-purpose vengeful man. The period was notable for the high degree of cooperation on major domestic issues between the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and the Republican President. Essentially, the concept was that the Federal role was (1) the determination of national goals and (2) providing incentives and assistance to the private sector and the states and local governments in moving toward these objectives. Among the highlights that come to my mind initially are: creating the Environmental Protection Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; enacting the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Fisheries Management Act, a new Merchant Marine Construction Act, and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act; adopting the Family Assistance Plan, the Earned Income Tax Credit and General Revenue Sharing; and vastly expanding assistance to minority businesses. Legislative proposals for a national health insurance plan, a nation-wide model cities program and a national land use management program were well underway. These latter initiatives died with Watergate and the public is the loser.

From 1969 to 1971, I served as Assistant to the Secretary of Commerce for Policy Development. My direct contact with President Nixon was very limited. However, the following examples present a policy-driven, decisive man, totally different from the present popular caricature.

  1. One of my tasks was to combine a number of different Federal programs that dealt with oceanic and atmospheric measurements into a single agency to be located in the Commerce Department. In the process, I interviewed candidates and recommended Dr. Robert W. White to head the new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Dr. White was a noted meteorologist and then head of the Environmental Sciences Administration. He was also a Democrat and the brother of Theodore White, who had angered Nixon in his account of the 1968 Presidential campaign, The Making of the President. Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans accepted my recommendation.

    I was with Secretary Stans when he advised the President of his intention to name Bob White as head of NOAA. Presidential Assistant John Erlichman immediately pointed out the negatives, emphasizing both the political and personal (“He’s Teddy White’s brother!”) aspects. Nixon looked at Stans and said: “Is he the best one for the job?” Stans said, “Yes”. And Nixon said, “Then that’s it,” ending the discussion

  2. Separately (In Nixon and the National Population Study), I describe how quickly the President grasped the implications of certain statistics and his immediate sound policy decision.

  3. Several times, I attended the President’s Tuesday meetings with the Republican Congressional Leadership when the Department of Commerce had specific legislative concerns. The Democrats, controlling both the House of Representatives and the Senate, held the legislative initiative. The purpose of the Tuesday meetings was to coordinate the response of the Republican minority and the White House.

    As the House Minority Leader, Representative Gerald Ford was expected to advise the President. However, at the sessions I attended, Ford seemed unprepared. During these meetings, the President analyzed each legislative issue and determined the appropriate coordinated reaction. His analysis was always crisp and his decisions clear and precise. He appeared to have a complete grasp of both the policy and political consequences. His voice was always at a low key. He was relaxed and often humorous.

  4. I also attended several Cabinet meetings and again found the President to be fully relaxed and completely in control. He explained his general policies and listened carefully to the comments and reports of the Cabinet members. It seemed to clear to me that, as a group, the Cabinet members did not serve as policy advisors to the President. However, he permitted the individual department heads to develop initiatives, without committing himself to approval. Certainly with respect to domestic matters, I felt that there was no restraint in possible agency creativity.

  5. Fairly early in his administration, Nixon walked in on a work session I was attending. He had a satisfied smile. Speaking to no one in the room individually, but to everyone everywhere, he exclaimed, “Well, I’ve just figured out how to get something done around here! I found the captain who is in charge of those old miserable Navy buildings on the mall and I said to him, ‘Captain if those navy buildings aren’t gone by Christmas, you’ll be a lieutenant!'”

    (The three or four ugly wooden “Navy buildings” had been erected either during or right after World War I. They were dark shacks, standing on stilts. Among the items there was a photographic exhibit of terrible human deformities. These buildings were a blight on the Washington Mall. They had survived many previous administrations, but they were gone before Christmas, 1969.)

It was clear that a different persona appeared when Nixon “went public”. At press conferences he appeared to be ready to do battle. Possibly this was a result of his early training for debates. Watching him on television, I could almost hear his early Speech teachers saying, “Now Richard, you must speak firmly….” Quite possibly the reasons were far deeper.

And quite possibly these deep reasons controlled Nixon at critical times. Certainly this was too bad for him. It was very bad for the country and it hurt those of us in his administration. This pain continues.

©2001 Steven E. Schanes

Published in: on February 2, 2007 at 9:36 am  Comments Off on The Nixon I Saw  
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