Trump is no Nixon — he’s much worse

With former President Donald Trump now facing four indictments, one recalls Lloyd Bentsen’s famous remark that Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy. The appropriate parallel today is to say that Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon.

The Trump-Nixon comparisons are facile but superficial and in crucial respects wrong. They ignore fundamental differences between a serious and accomplished public servant whose overwrought ambition led him astray, and a self-centered dilettante whose main interest in government service is to feed his boundless ego.

The contrasts between the two men are far more significant than the similarities.

Confronted with clear indications that his administration’s illegalities would support impeachment, Nixon resigned the presidency to avoid the personal ordeal and to spare the country excruciating divisions. His acknowledgement that he had failed the American people reflected deep remorse.

Trump, on the other hand, seems incapable of taking personal responsibility. His consistent response to two impeachments and multiple indictments has been to deny any misconduct on his part and to allege that he is the victim, not the villain. Never mind the damage to the country as he exploits polarization to raise funds for his campaign — and for his legal expenses.

Nixon ‘s moral and legal failings weigh against affirmative elements of his behavior over many years. Unlike Trump’s unsupported assertions that he won the election in 2020, Nixon declined to challenge dubious results in the 1960 tallies, concerned not to undermine constitutional processes. Nixon’s respect for the electoral system differs starkly from Trump’s persistent attempts to overturn its validated results.

Nixon’s profanity, captured on the White House tapes, is unbecoming, but none of his public comments match the way Trump has vulgarized national discourse. He invites supporters to join in vilifying opponents, making civilized debate virtually impossible.

As hard-edged and mean-spirited as Nixon’s politics could be sometimes, he also strove regularly for bipartisan cooperation on many issues. Compare that to Trump’s bitter hostility to working across party lines to forge the compromises indispensable to constructive policy.

History pays tribute to watershed achievements by Nixon. If his ambition and domestic political maneuvers veered into excess, he proved himself a leader of talent and strategic vision in managing relations with the communist adversaries he had long denounced.

I voted against Nixon in 1960 and I worked against his nomination in 1968. As staff director for Republican Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, I had expected to remain passive, along with the senator, during the 1968 campaign. Nixon, however, eagerly sought the active support of the first African-American senator ever elected by popular vote. He pleaded with Senator Brooke to accompany him on the first campaign swing after the convention. This was part of Nixon’s outreach to Nelson Rockefeller’s supporters — including his running mate, Spiro Agnew, and Henry Kissinger.

Brooke was impressed by Nixon’s private reassurance that he intended to engage Beijing directly. Nixon also condemned the reckless nuclear competition with the Soviet Union, promising to move beyond the Kennedy-Johnson proposals toward more far-reaching arms control negotiations. Nixon responded to Brooke’s urging by announcing that he would recommend ratification of the pending nuclear nonproliferation treaty, an agreement that had been put on hold after the Soviets invaded Prague.

Nixon followed through on those plans and made other notable achievements in his first term, including important advances in environmental policy, improved regional coordination among federal departments and increased hiring of racial minorities in the construction and craft industries.

From Brooke’s (and my) standpoint, those accomplishments weighed against Nixon’s so-called southern strategy, which had persuaded Nixon to nominate, in succession, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. Brooke played the decisive role in defeating both nominations, rallying enough Republicans to join with Democrats in opposition.

Relations between Brooke and the White House were often uneasy. Yet when Nixon approached the 1972 election, he asked the senator to second his renomination. Brooke’s remarkable address highlighted the evident differences between them, but he argued that Nixon’s international performance warranted his re-election. 

Sadly, Brooke was soon dismayed to find himself forced to conclude that the Watergate crimes required Nixon to leave office. That departure overshadows the record of landmark foreign policy achievements, along with significant advances on some domestic fronts, despite less creditable tendencies on others.

In no respect does Trump’s policy record approach that of Nixon. His strongest claims rest on appointments to the Supreme Court and counterproductive tax measures that did little to resolve the government’s growing fiscal crises. His most notable nod to bipartisanship was a reluctant signature of the First Step Act to address the crisis of mass incarceration. He trivialized presidential responsibilities by disparaging allies and flirting childishly with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. 

Nixon proudly wore the uniform as a naval officer in the Second World War, actively seeking service in the Pacific, whereas Trump dodged the Vietnam draft. He even compared his risky sexual excursions in those years to the dangers others faced in war. Speaking of which, Nixon’s faithfulness to his wife contrasts with Trump’s very public adultery.

Even after his fall from grace, Nixon found a way to serve. At the initiative of Edmund Muskie and Howard Baker, he joined a confidential initiative to counsel Ronald Reagan in shaping productive diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev. And Bill Clinton, no less, stated publicly that Nixon had given him some of the best advice he received.

Can anyone imagine a future president calling on Trump for advice on policy?

It would be a disservice to history to conflate the records and memories of Trump and Nixon. It is not too early to resist that inclination.

Alton Frye, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is the Council’s Presidential Senior Fellow Emeritus and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

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