Bush/Nixon and the battle for the bottom

In the twilight days of Dubya's presidency, the new parlor game is wondering who was the worse president: Bush or Nixon?
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President Richard Nixon at his California estate in 1972.

In the twilight days of Dubya's presidency, the new parlor game is wondering who was the worse president: Bush or Nixon?

The new movie Frost/Nixon, about the famous interview between the British talk show host and the disgraced former president, is providing a new occasion to consider the depths of the Bush presidency. James Reston, Jr., who has written a book about the Frost/Nixon interview, has said that the movie is driven by the fact that Nixon is a "metaphor" for George W. Bush. He's wondered aloud "Who will be the David Frost who exposes him?'ꀝ

There have certainly been those who have tried, like fly-on-the-wall reporter Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, whose books on Bush have left Woodward seeming less like a star investigative reporter and more like a guy who barely laid a glove on his subject, and a velvet glove at that. The question of who will "expose" Bush presumes that no one has yet got at what makes him tick. He does often appear to have the shallow, flat effect of a dry drunk, a man whose there is so thin as to not be there. A man without Freud or Shakespeare in him, let alone on his book shelf.

He wouldn't be the first president to elude. Try reading biographies of Calvin Coolidge or Franklin Pierce. Or remember Ronald Reagan biographer Edmund Morris who threw up his hands at trying to find his subject's innards ("He's still a mystery!") and who thus decided to fictionalize the president's inner life because when he scratched Reagan's Hollywood tinsel all he found was more tinsel underneath? An empty man makes an unworthy villain, and a tedious biography.

Nixon was not empty. A few months ago, for some reason completely unconnected with the Frost/Nixon movie (which I have not yet seen) I watched several long segments of the original Frost/Nixon broadcast on YouTube and I was struck by how intelligent, reflective, creepy, and self-absorbed Richard Nixon was. No one would ever suggest there wasn't a there there, even if it was a very scary place. Bad guys with the depth and pathology of Nixon become great characters, villains you can both loathe and sympathize with. Bad guys make the best protagonists.

Standing up in defense of Nixon's villainy was Fox News' Chis Wallace, who took issue with the claim that Bush is worse than Nixon. A bristling Wallace said, 'ꀜTo compare George W. Bush to Richard Nixon is to trivialize Nixon'ꀙs crimes and is a disservice to Bush....Richard Nixon'ꀙs crimes were committed solely for his own political gain, whereas George W. Bush was trying to protect the American people.'ꀝ In other words, selfish Nixon was way worse than bungling Bush.

Some of Bush's defenders are quick to point out that history has not yet spoken. Bush's "brain," Karl Rove, argues that Bush is certainly not the worst president of the last 50 years. People have thought worse of others. As a political operative who lives by the numbers, Rove goes to the polls: "There have been four presidents who have had lower approval ratings: Carter, Nixon, Johnson and Truman....history has judged each man differently after their departure."

It's not exactly a stirring defense of the boss, and Rove leaves out some important data. Bush's approval numbers have been below Nixon's a number of times, even Nixon's impeachment period ratings, but while Nixon may have scored slightly lower in approval, no modern president has scored a higher disapproval rating than Bush, according to Gallup. In other words, his negative numbers were in a zone of his own.

Nixon's badness is constantly refreshed by new revelations from newly released White House tapes and memos in which he plots revenge against enemies and hippies, rails against Ivy Leaguers, Jews, and blacks, and generally proves himself to be a crude, posturing bore in love with his own voice (so much so that he taped his criminality and boorishness for posterity to hear). Some argue that evil Nixon beats Bush in at least one area: shame. As New York Times op/ed columnist Roger Cohen wrote earlier this fall, for all his faults, Nixon resigned his office when he'd brought it to disgrace. "Shame," he wrote, "has become a quaint chivalric notion, like honor, a thing of another American time."

Nixon's willingness to fall on his sword made him both noble and ignoble, a larger-than-life tragic figure, a bad-guy worth remembering. Bush, on the other hand, shows all the signs of being a more destructive president, but also more forgettable as a man. Nixon's villainy is his saving grace, Bush's his ticket to oblivion.

PS: This just in: A John McCain lawyer says it's Obama who's as bad as Nixon.

PPS: Another update: Could Obama be the new Nixon when it comes to bowling?

And yet more: John Deans tells Obama how not to be Nixon.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.