Mark Shields: Missing Richard Nixon

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

John P. Sears, before he was manager of Ronald Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, had spent the years from 1965 through 1970 working as a top political aide to Richard M. Nixon.

Sears, a bright and witty man who found Nixon both complicated and fascinating, spoke about accompanying Nixon, then an unannounced presidential candidate, up the steps of a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City to meet with the elders of the church. Nixon stopped about halfway up, as Sears told the story, and said, “John, whatever I say in here, don’t you believe a word of it.”

This, I would later learn, was the same Richard Nixon who, while vice president, personally drove his daughters’ carpools and regularly left the Executive Office Building in order to watch his daughter Julie play high school field hockey. Years later, at the time of the Iran-contra scandal during Ronald Reagan’s second White House term, John Sears had a conversation with Nixon who analyzed the problem and concluded that “Reagan will survive, because, when all is said and done, Reagan can get up and say ‘I am an idiot and therefore I can’t be blamed,’ and everyone will agree.” Knowingly, Richard Nixon added: “I never had that option.”

What brought all of this to mind was the 2016 Republican presidential debate in Cleveland, which was dominated by real estate mogul Donald Trump, a man who — quite obviously — has none of Richard Nixon’s self-awareness. Recall how Trump launched his candidacy in June with the charge that the policy of the government of Mexico was to export criminals across the border to the U.S. (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. … They’re rapists”).

Debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News pursued an evasive Trump and asked, “What evidence do you have, specific evidence, that the Mexican government is sending criminals across the border?” During his response, the Republican front-runner made Pinocchio look like a piker. “If it weren’t for me,” he claimed, “you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration, Chris. This was not a subject that was on anybody’s mind until I brought it up in my announcement.”

Wrong. So central has the immigration question been to the GOP for the last 30 years that an officially sanctioned Republican National Committee “autopsy” following the 2012 loss called for an abandonment of the party’s anti-immigration position, declaring: “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”

But what is the source for his claim that the Mexican government is deliberately sending us its worst? Trump: “Border patrol. I was at the border last week. Border patrol. People that I deal with that I talk to. They say that is what’s happening, because our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid and the Mexican government is much smarter. …” His evidence for the unequivocal declaration in his June 16 announcement speech of an international conspiracy turns out to be a four-hour visit to the Laredo, Texas, border on July 23. This guy could break a polygraph.

When asked by Wallace to respond to Trump’s bogus “evidence” that the Mexican government is sending “the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them because why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them,” Ohio governor John Kasich, who had dared to defend his extending Medicaid to his state’s lower-income citizens, went weak in the knees. Rather than risk Trump’s wrath or the backlash of the GOP’s nativist wing, Kasich chose flattery: “Donald Trump is hitting a nerve in this country.” Maybe so, but Trump, the billionaire charlatan, has made me nostalgic for the candor of Richard Nixon.


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