Weekend Open Thread: We Here in Nixon’s County Remain Nixon’s Children

Nixon Resigning

On this 40th anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon — a two-day process fitting snugly between the 69th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — what comes to my mind is, of all things, a quote from the sixth Star Trek movie “The Undiscovered Country” (from 1991), where Spock explains a bit of strategy — his friend Captain Kirk being the best emissary to reach rapprochement with the then-enemy Klingons — by citing an “old Vulcan Saying” (which is either Spock’s joke or a hilarious comment on cultural memories): “Only Nixon could go to China.”

The phrase gets about 125,000 hits in Google.  The phrase “Only Nixon can go to China” gets about 70,000.  Both are used; both are cited as what Spock says in the movie.  (It’s actually enunciated, in a very  sprightly and un-Vulcan way, “Only Nixon cn Go to China!” — which is I guess a weak victory for “can.”)  To me, it’s sad that Leonard Nimoy swallowed the word, because “Could” suggests a historical statement about Nixon while “Can” turns Nixon into an allegorical figure, as in “Only a Nixon can go to China.”  And surely, Nixon would enjoy being an allegorical figure.

Here’s how that phrase it explained by the Internet Movie Database:

What did Spock mean by the old Vulcan saying “only Nixon could go to China?”

US President Richard Nixon (in office from 1969 to 1974) was known for his firm anti-communist politics. When Communist states China and the Soviet Union broke up their alliance in the 1960s, Nixon perceived this as a perfect opportunity to gain an advantage in the Cold War against the Soviets by improving relations with China. The visit was controversial, because China was at that time considered to be an enemy state. Paradoxically, this made President Nixon the appropriate person to visit Communist China, because he was clearly an antagonist to their government. Had it been a more moderate politician, then this person could have been blamed for having too much sympathy for the Chinese, or of not serving the United States’ best interest in negotiations. Spock alludes to this fact, because Kirk is the most famous Klingon adversary in the Federation, so they know that he will not let the Klingons off the hook easily during negotiations. They can safely send him to eliminate all suspicions of fraternizing with an enemy. It is also another reference to the Cold War, of which there are many in this film. Spock is jokingly attributing the phrase to his own Vulcan culture — a running joke throughout the movie with different characters. For instance, Chancellor Gorkon claimed Shakespeare must be read in its “original Klingon,” Chekov claims that Cinderella is a “Russian epic,” and Spock also refers to Sherlock Holmes as an ancestor.

No, that’s not it.  They totally missed the point — and in doing so they denatured Nixon as thoroughly as the creators of Barney denatured the Tyrannosaur (or whatever he is supposed to be.)

The reason that only Nixon could go to China was not because he would be above suspicion or certain not to go easy on them in negotiations.  The reason that only Nixon could go to China was because he, more than anyone else in the world, was protected from the most damaging aspect of going to China: the certainty that Richard Nixon would rake your ass over the coals for going to China!

In other words, the phase means something like “Only Shaquille O’Neal could avoid being dunked on by Shaquille O’Neal” — because it was going to happen to everyone else, but his dunking on himself was physically impossible, so he was the only one who could avoid it.

That tells you a lot more about Nixon than the silly portrayal of him as brave and noble in going to China — and it ain’t pretty.  The fact is, another President could have gone to China — or “gone to China” if we want to make it an allegory — earlier than him if it weren’t for the fact that he, as fierce leader of the anti-communist fire-breathers of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, would have shot them and their political career full of holes.  His red-baiting, starting with local political Jerry Voorhees and then graduating to Helen Gahagan-Douglas and beyond, prevented all sorts of potentially useful peace initiatives that might have succeeded but for Richard Nixon.  Without Nixon, maybe Kennedy — and if not him, then very likely LBJ — can “go to China” and stop the Vietnam war in its infancy.  LBJ was afraid to make the compromises that were necessary to end the war because he was afraid of political repercussions — and those political repercussions were ones that would have been orchestrated and drum-led by Richard Nixon.

Those too young to have grown up with Richard Nixon may have little idea of how brilliant and gifted he was at destructive politics.  Karl Rove was not in his league.  Ronald Reagan was a gifted speaker and no dummy (at least through most of his Presidency).  Joe McCarthy was effective for a while, but ultimately overreaching and alienating.  Newt Gingrich was close to his caliber in the mid-90s, but had too swelled of a head — figuratively as well as literally.  Jesse Helms was probably the next most adept, but would never survive on a national stage.  Tom Delay had the requisite viciousness, but not the brains — and was playing against much weaker competition.  Nixon was the genius — the unparalleled combination of flaming id and towering brains that it took to take over politics for a time.

If you want to look for traces of Nixon’s genius and greatness — neither of which I really mean as compliments, but facts are facts — the best place where you could look around might well be Orange County.  Nixon’s political disciple Tom Fuentes shaped our county’s political culture for decades, ensuring that we would remain Richard Nixon’s spiritual children.  The main consolation is that, like Nixon in the last two years or more of his Presidency, people with such penchants sometimes get sloppy.  (And here, they certainly have.)

Happy 40th Anniversary, America, even if it’s not a Happy Anniversary for Dick Nixon.

This is your Weekend Open Thread.  Talk about that, or anything else you’d like, within reasonable bounds of decorum and discretion.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)