"Stability, security, authority, trust, balance—to the degree that the term “Burkean” means anything in the American context, surely it is in the restoration of these qualities in American public and society in the face of their precipitous decline. Where Moynihan and Nixon departed from the liberals of their time was in their modesty about policy’s ability to do anything about this."
“The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker,” reads the gravestone of Richard Nixon at his presidential library in Yorba Linda, California. The quote comes from the 37th president’s first inaugural address and might be interpreted as one of those psychopersonal aphorisms that drive the lives of misunderstood dark romantics. Nixon’s role in his own life drama could be thought of as that of a triple peacemaker.
First, lessons for peace on the world stage: he did more than anyone to pull America out of the Vietnam War, and his bold, practical vision in foreign affairs—with all the fruits of détente with Communist Russia and China—kept peace and order at front and center.
Second, lessons for peace within: he was tormented by deep insecurity, innumerable resentments and rage against his social betters, and he knew it. “Nixon has an angel on one shoulder and a dark angel on the other. He is both,” said his law partner. He never quite conquered himself, but by the end of his career in public life he’d learned enough to admonish his staff that “others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Third, lessons for peace on the homefront: Nixon governed America in a time of riots and protests and killings, as trust in the established order hit a nadir and the essential patterns of the public neuroses of our own time first hardened into national conflict. The Nixon presidency was remarkably successful at quelling the worst of the unrest of the ’60s and restoring a sort of “peace with honor” to domestic affairs. A larger part of that achievement than is commonly realized emerged from the Nixon administration’s approach to social policy.
John Roy Price’s memoir of his time working as an assistant to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the key figure in the early Nixon administration’s domestic program, illuminates this impact. The Last Liberal Republican is not a definitive and comprehensive analysis of the Nixon administration’s domestic policy, although it will be an indispensable aid to the historian who eventually takes on writing that work. But the book is a firsthand account of the inner workings of those crucial years.
One of its best features is Price’s recounting of his early days in the Ripon Society, a club of young Republicans who strove to build a counter-movement against the ascendant Buckleyite conservatives (and simultaneously against the activist New Left) capable of articulating a moderate Republican program and eventually staffing moderate Republican administrations. The Ripon men would fail in that task, eventually, but not before many helped shape the Nixon administration’s policy agenda. “We were doing serious things; it was our Camelot,” says one young Nixon aide of the forgotten idealism of the Nixon White House’s early years.
Moynihan had played a role in crafting the Great Society under President Lyndon Johnson earlier in the 1960s, realizing over time that its programs sometimes worsened various social pathologies. A New Deal liberal until the day he died, Moynihan was more genuinely mugged by reality than anyone else associated with neoconservatism and achieved his greatest heights while working for and with folks far more conservative than himself. The failed fruit of some of that work was President Nixon’s signature domestic initiative.
Price’s memoir focuses on the development and demise of the Family Assistance Plan (FAP,) cast in the minds of its advocates, and sold to the governing class whose blessing it needed, as a Republican analogue to the Social Security Act of 1935—a revolutionary redirection of social policy which, if it succeeded, would “establish a framework of economic security that would have reduced racial antagonisms and the scale of the economic divisions.” Moynihan and Nixon were trying to change the basis of American welfare policy from what they called a “services strategy” to an “income strategy.”