Can Barack Obama succeed in laying Richard Nixon's ghost to rest? As Obama pledges bipartisanship and reaches across the aisle to John McCain, many of us can't help but hope that we've seen the end of the politics of denigration.
For five decades, the Republican party has taken its lessons from the master of divide and conquer politics. By the time of the 1968 presidential election, Nixon had already demonstrated that votes could be won by questioning not just the patriotism but the loyalty of the opposition. During the 1952 national election, Republican vice presidential candidate Nixon, in one sentence, slurred the reputations of the sitting president, Harry Truman, and the Democrat's presidential nominee by calling them "traitors to the high principles in which many of the nation's Democrats believe." Forever after, Nixon would piously declare that he had never called either man a traitor--a defense that was literally true, but also wholly false. He didn't earn the name "Tricky Dick" for nothing.
As he entered his second race for the White House, Nixon had established the axiom that going negative was the path to victory. In the 1968 campaign, when Nixon spoke about the need for law and order and for the recognition "that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence," the white southerners and northern blue collar workers of Nixon's "forgotten" America knew he was speaking only to them. Once in office, Nixon stirred simmering resentments against school busing and nominated Southerners with racist pasts to the Supreme Court. In his handling of the Vietnam war, Nixon famously sent his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, on NBC's Today show to tar the anti-war movement as traitorous for its "aiding and abetting" the North Vietnamese.
Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove and others well-schooled in the Richard Nixon brand of politics created the modern presidential electoral playbook. And what we got was race-baiting law and order pitches like the infamous Willie Horton furlough ads used against Michael Dukakis and the jujitsu negativity of the swift boat captain spots. And though he himself had been the victim of this kind of politics during the 2000 Republican primaries, John McCain embraced the Nixonian model on his failed road to the White House. Turning his vice presidential candidate loose to a good share of the dirtiest work, a strategy that Nixon participated in on both ends of the Republican ticket, McCain relied on Palin, who cast herself as voice of the "pro-American" sections of the United States, to accuse Obama of "palling around with terrorists." In the election's final days, the McCain campaign, desperate for a game-changer, threw most of its money and energy into warnings that a "socialist" Barack Obama would raise taxes on "us" while re-distributing wealth to those who refused to work.
For the first time in recent memory, these tired old tricks didn't work. In 1968, Richard Nixon promised to bring us together. But he never really meant it. Obama rejected the Nixonian game plan: divide the nation and pick up the biggest piece. By constructing an electoral victory that relied on blacks, whites, Latinos, women, and men, on north, south, east and west, and by acting now on his promise to speak to all of us, Barack Obama has positioned himself to re-shape American politics in ways even more historic than we realize.
Daniel Frick is the author of Reinventing Richard Nixon: A Cultural History of an American Obsession (University Press of Kansas, 2008). He directs the Writing Center at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.