I have two items for my blog post today about Joan Hoff’s Nixon Reconsidered.
1. On page 21, we read the following about President Richard Nixon’s environmental policy, specifically White House counsel John Ehrlichman’s contribution to it:
“Often using poll data, [John] Ehrlichman—-with his assistant, Egil [Bud] Krogh; John Whitaker, who served first as Nixon’s cabinet secretary and later as undersecretary of the Interior Department; and Whitaker’s assistant, Christopher DeMuth—-substantially influenced both Nixon’s ideas and the content of his environmental legislation by making it into a crisis issue. In fact, Ehrlichman, who had specialized in land-use law in Seattle, has been described by one forest conservation specialist as ‘the most effective environmentalist since Gifford Pinchot,’ referring to the controversial chief of the U.S. Forest Service under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. He and Whitaker put Nixon out in front of Congress on environmental issues, especially with respect to the use of the permit authority in the Refuse Act of 1899 to begin to clean up water supplies before Congress passed any ‘comprehensive water pollution enforcement plan.’ Curiously, Ehrlichman did not dwell on his own contribution to environmental reform in his 1982 book, Witness to Power, preferring to denigrate Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel, whose anti- and then pro-conservation and pollution views he constantly had to counter.”
I thought this passage was funny. John Ehrlichman, “the most effective environmentalist since Gifford Pinchot.” Really? But, come to think of it, I don’t know a whole lot about Ehrlichman, since I know of him primarily on account of what I have read about Watergate. Maybe he was an environmentalist, for all I know!
The part about Ehrlichman not dwelling on his contributions to environmental policy in his 1982 book stood out to me. I am tempted to think that, whereas Democrats liked to talk about reform, Republicans (specifically the Nixon Administration) were actually bringing it about, and were doing so in a low-key way. Maybe there’s some truth to that (though one should not undervalue the reforms that Democrats brought about). But I doubt that it’s the whole story. The paragraph opens, after all, by saying that Ehrlichman and others used poll data. Why would they use poll data, if they wanted their environmental policies to be low-key and unknown to the voters? My hunch is that they would use poll data because, on some level, they are crafting their policies according to what would be effective politically, in terms of what would effectively advertise the Nixon Administration to the public. This raises a question that I have asked since I started reading Hoff’s book, and that I may continue to ask until I finish it (and perhaps even beyond): to what extent were the Nixon Administration’s domestic reforms motivated by a commitment to principle, and to what extent were they politically-motivated attempts to get votes? The impression that I am getting was that Nixon was quite a politically-calculating person. But I can’t rule out from my reading that there may have been some noble principles motivating Nixon.
2. On pages 62-63, Hoff talks about the Office of Economic Opportunities’ Legal Services Program, which aimed to provide legal services to the poor. Under the Nixon Administration, Donald Rumsfeld headed the OEC for a while, and (when Rumsfeld was made Counsel) his replacement was Howard Phillips, a conservative who wanted to dismantle the OEC. Howard Phillips would go on to become a conservative activist, and he passed on recently.
“…in November 1969 Rumsfeld believed that the White House was not supporting his opposition to the so-called Murphy amendment, which would have given each governor veto power over the OEO Legal Services Program funded by that state without the OEO directors being able to override the veto. This issue arose over Nixon’s proposal to turn the Office of Legal Services into a separate government corporation chartered by Congress and funded at the local level with revenue-sharing funds. Since it was evident that local officials might choose not to use federal funds for such antipoverty programs, critics feared for its survival. Women and Native American leaders were particularly concerned about continued legal aid for their constituents. The White House went to great lengths between 1969 and 1973 to respond that the president’s intent was to ‘make sure that every citizen has access to legal services,’ while ‘correcting the abuses which went on under this program’ and removing ‘legal services from the recurring political controversy which has attended it.’ Nixon claimed, for example, in an August 11, 1969, statement to Congress about restructuring OEO that legal services to the poor would be ‘strengthened and elevated’ by having independent status…Civil rights advocates and antipoverty activists questioned both the motives and intent of the White House and, like Rumsfeld, were against the obvious intent of the Murphy amendment to allow governors to cut back funding for legal services benefiting the poor. This prompted Ehrlichman, in a carefully worded memorandum, to point out to Nixon that ‘in view of Don’s [Rumsfeld] public stance and the nature of the opposition to Murphy’s amendment you cannot favor the amendment’…Nixon ultimately supported Rumsfeld over those in favor of the Murphy amendment…”
This passage stood out to me for two reasons. First of all, it brought to my mind a passage that I read in Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician. Morris referred to a paper that Nixon wrote as a Duke Law School student that defended legal services for the poor, and Morris regarded that as ironic, in light of Nixon’s efforts as President to undermine the Legal Services Program. The thing is, according to Hoff, Nixon did not feel that he was trying to undermine the Legal Services Program, nor did he as President oppose the provision of legal services to the poor. His whole point was that he was trying to preserve legal services for the poor by making the program more efficient. On pages 64-65, Hoff says that Nixon believed that the OEO’s provision of money to political groups like the American Indian Movement and the National Welfare Rights Organization was resulting in the “diversion of funds away from representing poor people in the courts.” (This is a line from a news summary, and Nixon indicated agreement with it.)
Was Nixon right on this? Or would his policy have had deleterious effects on the ability of the poor to be represented in court? I’m sure this was debated. One reason that I like Hoff’s book so far, however, is that she presents Nixon’s characterization of his own domestic policies: we get to hear what he said about his own motives and agendas, not just his detractors’ characterizations of them. Some may say that Nixon was giving the public spin. Perhaps. But his side of the story should still be heard, and I would say the same about the perspectives of others in the debate: the political groups who feared the consequences of Nixon’s OEO policy, Democrats, etc.
Second, Hoff refers to a concern about Nixon’s policy regarding the Legal Services Program: that federal money would be given to the states, and the states would choose not to fund legal services to the poor adequately. This was actually a widespread criticism of Nixon’s New Federalism agenda in general: that it would give money to the states for certain programs, and the states would choose not to spend all of it on those programs, choosing instead to spend it elsewhere, or to use it to balance the state budget. Unfortunately, as far as I could see (and I have not read all of Hoff’s book), Hoff does not adequately address this concern. She distinguishes Nixon’s New Federalism from the policies of Ronald Reagan, whom she says did not particularly care for government involvement even at the state level (which is interesting to me, since Reagan talked about turning over power to the states, and yet it would not surprise me, since there are many Tea-Partier types today who seem to oppose more taxes and spending at the state and local levels, not just the federal). According to Hoff, Nixon’s policy was to give lots of money to state governments, and they would use that money for certain programs. But Hoff should have rigorously addressed the question: What if the money would go to the state governments, and the state governments would not use all of it for the programs?
I guess that, ultimately, Nixon did oppose an amendment that would allow states not to use money for legal services for the poor. His good, I suppose. The thing is, it appears to me that he was doing so for political purposes, and also because (on some level) his arm was being twisted by Don Rumsfeld, whom I never envisioned as a progressive, but that’s what he apparently was in this case. According to Ehrlichman, Rumsfeld was making a stink about the Murphy amendment, and that put Nixon in a position of having to oppose it. I can’t say that Nixon comes across as particularly heroic, here (though I will say that he did come across as more of a progressive hero in his policies regarding Native Americans, at least in what I read about that in Hoff’s book).