The veritable, the irreplaceable Richard Nixon was with us again this week. In newly released transcripts of his White House tapes he fulminated about "Jews," talked about using Teamsters' union thugs to beat up anti-war protesters and said aides should "sneak in in the middle of the night" to get the tax records of leading Democrats.
Reading his words, one wondered again about that morbid personality, so lacking in self-esteem that he sees conspiracies all about him and plots gutter vengeance against enemies.
And yet, and yet . . . a sudden realization dawns. With all his flaws of character, Richard Nixon did some progressive things for this country as president.
He was far more sensitive to our domestic needs than the cheerful, popular man who is president now, George Bush.
Nixon took an important step to shift responsibility from the overloaded federal government to states and localities _ and give them funds to meet the new burdens. His revenue-sharing program sent $83-billion to state and local governments until it was killed in the Reagan years.
With Presidents Reagan and Bush, it has been bricks without straw: burdens without funds. They have starved states and localities of aid.
Early in his first administration, Nixon made a dramatic proposal to alleviate poverty. This was his Family Assistance Plan, a form of guaranteed annual income. It would have been especially significant in increasing the number of children who got help. Child poverty was and is a particular blight on American society. The Family Assistance Plan was a politically courageous idea without natural support in the conservative Nixon constituency. In the end it failed in Congress, but it showed an awareness of poverty, and a willingness to face the problem, that have not been noticeable since.
One of the most surprising items in the Nixon presidential record is progress on race relations. Nixon's "Southern strategy" was to court white votes. Despite that _ or perhaps because of it _ he provided real leadership in finally bringing about compliance with the Supreme Court's 1954 school segregation decision.
In One of Us, his impressive new book on Nixon, Tom Wicker writes: "There's no doubt about it _ the Nixon administration accomplished more in 1970 to desegregate southern school systems than had been done in the 16 previous years, or probably since."
Another achievement was the "Philadelphia Plan" to bring blacks into construction jobs, from which white unions had long excluded them.
The plan required that contractors on any job financed even in part by federal funds hire a certain number of minority workers _ and that unions train black apprentices and admit them as members when qualified.
Those were a few of Nixon's responses to the prime domestic issues of that time. They are enough to make the contrast with the Bush record striking, and sad. On today's obvious needs _
health care, for example, and homelessness and transportation _ achievements or even proposals have been just about nil.
Why? Why was it that Richard Nixon tried to meet some of the pressing domestic needs of the day, while George Bush runs away from them?
The state of our politics must be part of the answer. Politics used to be about issues, about public problems. But the American political system has been thoroughly degraded in the last 20 years by spot television advertising, the pressure of money, the substitution of image for issues.
George Bush is a product of our present degraded politics, and a master of it. He won in a landslide in 1988 by inventing such "issues" as the Pledge of Allegiance and Willie Horton. The real problems facing the country were ignored.
The most telling item in the contrast between Nixon and Bush is race. If the Nixon Philadelphia Plan were being proposed today, Bush would no doubt denounce it as a "quota plan."
His interest is not in alleviating this country's corrosive race relations. It is in gaining political advantage.
In other words, George Bush represents what our political system has become: empty. With enormous popularity, he dares nothing on domestic questions. And the problems grow worse.
New York Times News Service