A YEAR AGO this month, Richard Nixon travelled to the People's Republic of China. All the nice things people have said about the China trip don't obscure the fact that Nixon's conduct as President has been somewhat cockeyed ever since he returned home.
Here's a bill of particulars: not only did Nixon refuse to campaign actively for the Presidency during the summer; he seems also to have sponsored an espionage-sabotage guerrilla action against the rival Democratic Party. Then, come fall and his landslide victory, Nixon began a brutal purge of his first-term administration, replacing deviationists in his Cabinet with party men who could be trusted to implement the correct line. But even his bureaucratic house-cleaning wasn't a sufficient guarantee that his second Administration would bear the imprint of Richard Nixon Thought, so the President decided to create by Executive Order the streamlined Politburo-style Super Cabinet, operating out of the White House, which Congress had refused to legislate when Nixon first proposed it. Then, in December, Nixon decreed the terror bombing of North Vietnam. While Congress, the Press, and the American people were gagging on their Christmas turkeys, the President took in the Florida sun--happy as a clam, it seemed, and certainly no more talkative. Nixon's first public statement after the terror bombing came in a 60th birthday interview with the wire service reporters. With Bach Mai hospital in ruins, the President offered the world advice on how to relieve boredom (talk to young people) and specified which birthday presents he finds useful (ties).
AND NOW, in February, the President has decided to carpet-bomb the Federal budget, demolishing nearly every major social program inaugurated since the Eisenhower administration. Simultaneously, the war on the First Amendment continues, with newspaper reporters the first major casualties, but more on the way if Clay T. Whitehead, Director of the White House Office on Telecommunications Policy, makes good his rhetorical attack on "ideological plugola" in the network news. If Whitehead has his way, the airwaves will soon hum with Richard Nixon Thought.
What in the world has come over Nixon in the last year? Why does he act as if he's gotten tired of the Constitution? For an answer, I suggest that we go back a year to the President's China trip and ask ourselves what he liked about the Chinese system of government.
The press releases issued at the time aren't much help; they are as enlightening as the remark Nixon made while surveying the Great Wall. Quipped the President: "You'd have to say this a great wall!" But later in the visit, Nixon toasted his hosts with a quote from Chairman Mao: "So many deed cry out to be done..Seize the day. Seize the hour."
What deeds was Nixon referring to? Bugging the Watergate? Muzzling the media? Waging phony election campaigns? Hiding aloof in the White House? Purging the bureaucracy? Ignoring Congress? Backing out of treaties at the last minute? In short, did Nixon learn the fine points of totalitarianism during his visit with the Chinese Reds?
SINCE NIXON himself only talks about politics in relation to football, we have to look at what other Americans with political views similar to those of the President have said about their trips to China. Joseph Alsop, the war hawk columnist, recently returned from China with praise for the Chinese experiment similar to the celebrated commendation of fascist Italy made forty years ago: "The trains run on time."
Alsop wrote: "Rather than thanking God to be crossing the border...we wished we could have had several months more. So why?...The best answer, so far as we could figure it out, is that this new Chinese society works..."
China works! In the states, you can't get a plumber for love or money, but China is the very embodiment of the "work ethic" we have been hearing so much about lately. No wonder, then, that Nixon was reportedly exhilarated by the sight of 200,000 Chinese clearing snow in unison, or that Alsop was most impressed by the fact that under Mao, the Chinese people are "unremittingly hard working." Or that, by comparison with the needle-popping U.S. Army, the Chinese "New Model Army" inspired Alsop to write lyrically: "All the men appeared to be singularly tough, dedicated and able. And the setting was sternly functional, splendidly clean..."
While Alsop's December and January columns were discussing the virtues of militarism, President Nixon with the blessing of the Chinese, was engaging in a stratospheric martial exercise over Hanoi. In an AP interview--conducted during the bombing but released later--Nixon commented, "It's important to live like a Spartan." He went on: "I believe in the battle, whether it's the battle of a campaign, or the battle of this office, which is a continuing battle."
IT SHOULDN'T surprise us that the totalitarian approach to politics is in fashion at the White House; it's nothing new. The leaders of the capitalist democracies have generally looked upon exotic, undemocratic forms of government with a horrid fascination--and have often doubted the efficacy and permanence of their own methods of social organization. In the 1930's, when the United States found it impossible to develop a coherent program for national recovery, even Franklin D. Roosevelt wondered for a time whether democracy could last. And for many intellectuals, the only choice then seemed to be one between Fascism and Communism--one of the two was the wave of the future.
In the 1950's, Americans wondered if democracy could survive the Cold War and the threat of Communists who seemed to be lurking in every woodpile. In many ways, democracy didn't fare too well; for in supporting the fight against communism, Americans surrendered many of their civil liberties. But such constitutional amenities as elections, freedom of the Press, and separation of powers in the Federal government were sustained. These amenities have been Nixon's targets of late, and he has been an extremely successful dictator-on-the-make.
Personally, I'd rather see Mao as dictator of the United States than Nixon, if it comes down to that. For one thing, he's more interesting. He's also committed to building an egalitarian socialist society, while Nixon's brand of socialism is apparently reserved for his friends at ITT, the Maritime industry, Lockheed, the grain warehouses and the other government-subsidized big boys. For everybody else--for the silent majority whom Nixon described as "the children of the house" in a November interview--the President prescribes hard work, self-reliance and "no free lunch" economics.
IS DEMOCRACY obsolete? Chairman Nixon and the captains of industry seem to think so. We "children" had better do some thinking of our own.