Nixon and Harding, up close and personal

     

    To borrow a phrase from Gwyneth Paltrow, let’s “consciously uncouple” ourselves from the Tuesday news cycle and ride the way-back machine to a pair of past presidencies. Dick Nixon and Warren G. Harding await us.

    As people, Nixon and Harding didn’t have much in common – Harding was a tomcatting babe magnet – but, as scandalmongers, they’re forever linked near the bottom of the presidential rankings. And coincidentally this week, to the delight of political junkies everywhere, their raw opinions and emotions have been laid bare – thanks to a public release of long-suppressed lust letters (Harding’s) and the latest batch of White House tapes (guess who’s). Attention must be paid, for the lessons we can learn.

    Harding’s letters to his longtime lover – the wife of a close friend – suggest that this guy was way more interested in hedonistic pleasure than the rigors of public service. The affair spanned the decade prior to his 1920 presidential ascent, and it’s lucky for him that he lived when he did, because today his extramarital life would’ve been exposed and tweeted in milliseconds. Especially the fact that he nicknamed his penis “Jerry,” and told his mistress stuff like this: “Wish I could take you to Mount Jerry. Wonderful spot.”

    It’s also hard to imagine that a candidate in the digital age would be able to buy a lover’s silence and keep it quiet – as Harding did, with lavish payoff money from the Republican National Committee – because, after all, we know what happened to John Edwards. But Harding’s successful coverup didn’t serve him well in the end. He didn’t like being president, and regretted getting the job. He allowed the crooks in his administration to run rampant. All told, he pined a lot more for his lover’s “pillowing breasts” than for power.

    In other words, a candidate’s character traits are arguably more important than his policy positions.

    Speaking of character, we’re all familiar with Nixon’s. No need to recap it, even as we approach the 40th anniversary of his resignation (it’s August 9), in the wake of a scandal that saw 43 of his aides go to jail. Unlike Harding, he had no problems pining for power – and corrupting it. It’s all there on the White House tapes that brought him down. But what’s great about the tapes is that they’re the gift that keeps giving. And this week, thanks to historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter, they give again.

    When today’s Republicans converse on national issues, they never ask themselves “Gee, what would Dick Nixon say about this?” And understandably so. These days, for instance, Republicans are still trying to figure out what to say about gays – many are still squeamish about gays, even though mainstream America has moved on – but Nixon isn’t much help because he’s kinda all over the map. Case in point, the newly released tape from his meeting with aides on April 28, 1971. Take it away, Tricky!

    “Let me say something before we get off the gay thing. I don’t want my views misunderstood. I am the most tolerant person on that of anybody in this shop. They have a problem. They’re born that way. You know that. That’s all. I think they are. Anyway, my point is, though, when I say they’re born that way, the tendency is there. (But) my point is that Boy Scout leaders, YMCA leaders, and others bring them in that direction, and teachers. And if you look over the history of societies, you will find, of course, that some of the highly intelligent people…Oscar Wilde, Aristotle, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, were all homosexuals…But the point is, look at that, once a society moves in that direction, the vitality goes out of that society.”

    OK, at least he thought that gays are “born that way,” which means he’d oppose the GOP nutcase crusade for conversion therapy. On the other hand, his belief that the Boy Scouts and the YMCA and teachers are conspiring to bring people “in that direction” and thus strip society of its vitality…well, that does seem a tad overwrought. Particularly when you hear what Nixon said on a tape that was released last year: “The last six Roman emperors were fags. You see, homosexuality, immorality in general, these are enemies of strng societies. That’s why communists and the left-wingers are pushing it.”

    So I guess we wouldn’t have been able to count on Nixon to support gay marriage, right? Not according to the new tape: “By God, I am not going to have a situation where we pass along a law indicating, ‘Well, now, kids, just go out and be gay.’ That’s a lifestyle I don’t want to touch.”

    OK, so he’d be no help reaching out to gay voters – or to tolerant voters in general. But what about women voters? Republicans badly need help on that front, too. Tell us, oh Wise Man…

    Nixon: “Why is it that girls don’t swear?”

    Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman: “Girls do swear.”

    Nixon: “Huh?”

    Haldeman: “They do now.”

    Nixon: “Oh, they do now? But nevertheless, it removes something from them. They don’t even realize it…You show me a girl that swears and I’ll show you an awful unattractive person…And none of the smart girls do swear, incidentally.”

    Yeesh. Give me Warren G. Harding any day.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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