Nixon, his staff, and the art of government reports

Four presidents
Our 37th president is largely persona non grata to the right—and worse to the left.
Photo from the National Archives.

We Republicans seldom miss an opportunity to point out that Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan are part of our pedigree.

Nods to Richard Nixon?

Not so much.

Because of the catastrophic ripples of the Watergate break-in, galling recordings from the Oval Office, and much more, our 37th president is largely persona non grata to the right and even worse to the left.

It seems that Mr. Nixon only receives even grudging appreciation in two instances. A “Nixon-goes-to-China moment” is now shorthand for a political leader’s courageously turning partisan expectations on their head for the public good.

Second, some progressives actually laud, even if reluctantly, his activist domestic policy agenda, including the creation of the EPA. (In fact, I had a liberal grad school professor in 2000 who would tell anyone willing to listen that he refused to vote for Gore—choosing Nader instead—because he couldn’t support anyone campaigning to the right of Nixon in 1972.)

My guess is that most readers simply clicked away from this post as soon as they read, “Richard Nixon.” Time is valuable, and his administration, defined by scandal, even 40-plus years hence, doesn’t merit the investment, they’d reason.

Some, however, probably decided to read on, curious if there’s a new damning discovery from Nixon’s archives.

Quite the opposite, actually. Some recent reading has me adjusting my jaundiced view of Mr. Nixon and his team.

I’m surely not calling for some sort of political resurrection—only a leavening earned, predominantly as far as I can tell, by a number of his appointees.

In short if you’re interested in the history of modern K–12 education reform, thoughtful policy research and analysis, and/or lessons on executive-branch hiring, 1969–1974 probably has more to offer than you might’ve guessed.

My reassessment began as I read The President’s Club late last year. This very good book chronicles the fascinating relationships between sitting presidents and their predecessors. Though glimpses of his worst flaws can be seen in various anecdotes throughout the book, Nixon comes across as possibly the sharpest thinker among this august group.

Mind you, the book wasn’t written by GOP apologists; Gibbs and Duffy are hardened reporters by trade. Nevertheless, Nixon is portrayed as the possessor of a remarkably fecund mind and an uncanny ability to see around corners, playing several chess moves ahead of others.

This returned to mind as I came across the Marland Report through my research for a project on America’s high-achieving students. Presented to Congress in 1972, this report, bearing the name of then-U.S. commissioner of education Sidney Marland, argued that our nation was under-investing in high-potential students, which was having a deleterious influence on millions of boys and girls and on the country’s future.

The report can be read as a response to the Johnson administration’s primary focus on disadvantaged kids (ESEA, Title I, the Coleman Report, etc.). But in the wake of NCLB and similar efforts to close the achievement gap—work which, some argue, comes at the expense of high performers—the report seems ahead of its time. In fact, many of its admonitions sound downright contemporary.

This is eerily similar to another report that had a major impact on my work about five years ago. I was working at the White House, and largely because of a terrific article by Peter Meyer, I was interested in helping stem the tide of closures of inner-city Catholic schools.

Thanks to the encouragement of an amazing boss and the personal interest of the President, I was able to pursue the idea. It might not have gotten off the ground had it not been for the uncovering, by White House librarians, of a similar initiative that took place—that’s right—during the Nixon Administration.

The “President’s Panel on Nonpublic Education,” a subcommittee of a larger group studying school finance, sent a report to the President in 1972 arguing forcefully that something had to be done to save urban nonpublic schools. The alternative was jeopardizing the future of millions of low-income kids.

I was astonished that I was trying to solve a problem that had been forecast, to little notice, nearly four decades earlier. Our projected culminated in a couple sentences in the 2008 State of the Union, a big White House event, and a report that borrowed heavily from the Nixon-era document.

It seems to me that the similarities between these two products are more than coincidence, especially when you consider the (in)famous “Moynihan Report” of 1965. Authored primarily by a then-unfamiliar Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the report sounded an alarm bell about “a new crisis in race relations” caused by the “disintegration” of the family in urban America.

Roundly denounced at the time for blaming the victim (a charge a reader of the report will find hard to sustain), the report presented little-known data backed by lesser-known history to make the case that, unless a social phenomenon were addressed, low-income kids and their neighborhoods would suffer grievously. The report was prescient.

Its author would later become a towering figure in American public life (see here for a peek). Michael Barone would later call Moynihan—in maybe my favorite description ever of a leader—the “nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.”

Despite Moynihan’s party identification and allegiance to LBJ, Nixon hired him to a senior White House role. Moynihan then hired a shocking array of talent, including a very young Checker Finn. Nixon also hired Marland.

They say that by understanding staff, you understand the boss. Nixon’s paranoia and general darkness were certainly reflected in his palace guard.

But the smartness and prescience of these reports speak to the virtues of their authors. And I’m inclined to believe that their being hired is a testament to the silver lining of Mr. Nixon’s otherwise dark-cloud character: his intellectual horse power and curiosity and his unusual ability to peer into the future.

As a conservative, I’m probably not supposed to be so bullish about government reports and the statist activism they suggest. But I like smarts and creativity, especially when they are harnessed for the public good.

Nowadays, documents emanating from the federal government are so thoroughly scrubbed by political and communications offices that they seldom alter a debate, much less the public’s understanding of an issue. I think that’s a shame.

This post surely won’t change that. Nor is it intended to apply hagiography to an indisputably regrettable chapter of our nation’s history.

But now, should I ever find myself trolling through Nixon-era documents, I’ll wonder a bit less whether I’m about to come across an old, incriminating memo, and I’ll hope a bit more that I might stumble upon a well-researched, prophetic report produced by a sharp, civic-minded staffer who was hired because of a president’s better angels but tainted by that president’s demons.

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