He was corrupt. He was petty, angry and resentful. He was also one of the most astute politicians in the annals of the American presidency. Time after time he overcame obstacles and defeats to rise again. His genius, ultimately, was this: He envisioned a new coalition and knew how to channel white resentment over the civil rights and antiwar movements into political triumph. This was his gift, and his legacy. Americans today inhabit the partisan universe that Richard Milhous Nixon crafted. Republican leaders to this very day speak Nixon’s language and employ Nixon’s tactics of fear and anger to win massive white majorities in election upon election. Indeed, though Nixon eventually resigned in disgrace before he could be impeached, the last half-century has been rather kind to the Republican Party. Only three Democrats have been elected president in that period, and Republicans have reigned over the White House for a majority of the post-Nixon era.
Back when I still wore the uniform of a U.S. Army officer, and well before many of my former brothers in arms labeled me a traitor, I taught freshman (“plebe”) history at West Point. I loved asking my cadets provocative questions, the sort of queries they never heard in high school Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. Consider just one. At the end of the class on World War II, I always asked: “What is the moral difference between flying three planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon—killing 3,000 civilians—and using hundreds of U.S. planes to firebomb Tokyo on March 9, 1945—killing some 90,000 civilians?” Suffice it to say that most cadets didn’t like this question at all.