By MARK SHIELDS
“History never looks like history when you are living through it” wrote John Gardner. “It always looks confusing and messy, and it always feels uncomfortable.”
Forty-five years after President Richard Nixon faced certain impeachment by the House of Representatives and Nixon, confronting an overwhelming Senate vote to convict him, resigned his office, Washington again faces the prospect of another profoundly grave and uniquely disruptive presidential impeachment.
What is, unfortunately, overlooked when we think of Nixon’s presidency and his ignominious leaving of it is the remarkable record of enlightened leadership he, a fiercely partisan Republican, wrote — with both houses of Congress controlled by the Democrats throughout — in 1 1/2 White House terms. If one accepts liberalism as the belief that the federal government can be a positive instrument able to promote economic and social justice, then Nixon could well qualify as America’s last liberal president.
First bear in mind that the median U.S. household income in 1968, the year Nixon was elected, was $7,400. Nixon would become the only American president to propose and champion a federally guaranteed minimum income of $5,500 for every American family with dependent children. Nixon’s plan required job training for parents and child care for their children was objected to, by some on the liberal side, because it provided less for the rich states than it did for the poor states.
Nixon offered this rebuttal: “We are one country. Consider the name of this nation: the United States of America. We establish minimum national standards because we are united. We encourage local supplements because we are a federation of states. And we care for the unfortunate because this is America.” For the first time, during the Nixon presidency, food stamps were guaranteed to every American who qualified for them.
In the first 220 years of this country, exactly one president made his “No. 1 priority” a national health plan that would have required employers to offer insurance with standard benefits to all their employees. Included under the Nixon plan: dental care and mental health care, plus free choice of doctors and hospitals. Plus, after three years, employers would be required — that’s right, federally mandated — to pay 75 percent of the insurance premiums. No surprise: The National Association of Manufacturers and the American Medical Association went to the barricades in all-out opposition.
Nixon’s Department of Justice brought us the most aggressive anti-trust enforcement since FDR. Nixon signed the bill authorizing the 18-year-old vote. Federal spending on health and education increased by more than 50 percent under Nixon, and the nation established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make Americans’ workplaces both safer and healthier.
Before the Nixon presidency, the U.S. had no national programs to preserve and protect our environment. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.
Nixon did commit high crimes and misdemeanors, which led to his resignation. He was not a plaster saint. But with the alarming news that 2 million Americans who had health care just a year ago no longer have it today — because of the policies of the Trump administration — that the oceans continue to rise and that while the administration minimizes the mortal threat of climate change, the richest continue to get richer, you have to wonder what this president’s apologists will be able to submit for history’s judgment.