Friday, January 29, 2010

The More Things Change ...

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was Jon Stewart's guest on the Daily Show last night, and they were talking about the State of the Union address. Goodwin mentioned a classic gaffe committed by President Nixon when he delivered his last State of the Union in January 1974, about eight months before he resigned.
Nixon ignored Watergate almost entirely in the speech and, instead, laid out accomplishments of his administration (including, notably, passing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts), and setting forth his agenda for the coming year. It was whistling past the graveyard, to be sure.
Among the things he asked Congress to do was reform welfare. He intended to ask lawmakers to end the present discredited program but instead asked them to end the "discredited president." Perhaps he was simply expressing an unconscious desire to be put out of his misery!
Having heard the story I just had to find the speech and hear it for myself. I could not find a clip of just that amusing error so I wound up listening to about half of the speech.
It was an interesting memory jog. Nixon truly was a remarkably poor public speaker and just plain bad on TV. It is amazing that he managed to get elected in the first place. It was a hoot to see all the early 70s fashions sported by members of Congress, and to note that it was a much paler and maler gathering then. The technology was amusingly ancient -- no teleprompter for one thing, and certainly no camera shot from the ceiling.
The most sobering aspect of the speech was the litany of challenges Nixon laid before the Congress. A contemporary president could recite the same list today -- and be thought ahead of his time! Health care, energy, transportation, jobs. The perennial challenges remain.
Sadly, a contemporary president who introduced programs such as those that Nixon called for in 1974 would be called a socialist by his Grand Old Party. He dared to mention gas rationing, and though he opposed it it was clear that he considered it a live option. He celebrated his administration's environmental record which included creating the EPA and signing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. And he called for a health care reform program that was more far reaching than the one today's Republican Party dismisses as Socialist designs for death panels.
Who would have ever imagined that any liberals would look back fondly on anything associated with Richard Nixon?

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