The Nixon I Knew

Jan. 2 1998 3:30 AM

The Nixon I Knew

The Nixon I Knew

Determined scholars and journalists have fished through the Nixon tapes and recovered enough material to fill books and articles showing that Nixon was obscene and unscrupulous. I do not deny that there was a Nixon like that. But that was not the only Nixon or the most usual and important one. Richard Nixon performed the daily, difficult duties of being president responsibly and respectably. I was not a confidant or crony of President Nixon, but I saw him frequently during his whole tenure of office, when I was a member and then chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers. On all these occasions he impressed me as a civil, serious, dedicated, judicious, and highly intelligent man. I believe that others who worked with him in a professional way had the same impression.

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I first met Nixon on Dec. 18, 1968, after his first election, when he was about to name me a member of the CEA. If I was a Republican at all, I was not a Nixon Republican. He was about to assume the most powerful office in the world. I was a little-known economics essayist. But I felt comfortable with him. He did not try either to glad-hand me or to impress me with his importance. He showed genuine interest in what I had to say about the matters on which I was assumed to be well informed, and he was unreserved about expressing his own opinion.

Iwas also struck by my observation of him at the first meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Policy, shortly after the inauguration. As members of the CEA, my colleague Hendrik Houthakker and I were the lowest-ranking people in the room. But the president wanted to hear what we had to say. He also made it clear that he did not expect his economic advisers to engage in political activity, although we might make speeches on economic policy to groups of economists and others interested in a professional way. I thought he showed courtesy, consideration, and a desire to learn. (Later, after the 1972 campaign, some of my Democratic friends thought that my speeches had been too political. If so, it was because I enjoyed being in the political game, not because Nixon urged me on.)

In the next six years I went through many meetings in which three or four people--from Treasury, Budget, Federal Reserve, or the CEA--would discuss economic policy with the president. He usually listened to the interchange quietly. When the discussion was over he would summarize it in a systematic way--distilling what order could be extracted from it and indicating what he thought were the main considerations and options. These scenes were light-years remote from the locker-room conversations with Haldeman, Erlichman, and others that have become the subject of much recent interest.

The president appreciated both the value and the limitations of economics. He understood that it had something to contribute and should be heard, but he also understood that economics is an uncertain science. There were no complaints or recriminations when the economic forecasts turned out to be wrong. At the beginning of 1972, the CEA had forecast that unemployment would be down from about 6 percent to 4 percent by the end of the year. In December, I had to report to him that unemployment was still about 5 percent. I said that was "in the neighborhood" of 4 percent. All he replied was that it was a streetcar ride across the neighborhood. That realistic attitude was a great comfort to an economic adviser.

I don't recall him ever using an obscenity, unless you want to count the time he said that he would rather have X inside the tent p...ing out than outside the tent p...ing in. (I believe this was borrowed from LBJ, and probably from generations of earlier politicians.) I remember Nixon once saying, "Honesty may not be the best policy, but it is worth trying once in a while." But that was an occasion when he was arguing for honesty.

In view of the grossness of some of the language selectively extracted from the tapes, I think it important to note that Nixon showed an appreciation of, and capacity for, good writing and wit. He had probably the best staff of writers of any president since the time when Alexander Hamilton wrote speeches for George Washington. The exchange with him that I best remember came in early 1973, when he was considering the reimposition of a wage-and-price freeze that had been so popular when first done in August 1971. In a smart-alecky kind of way, I said, quoting Heraclitus, "You can't step in the same river twice." He immediately responded, "Yes, you can, if it's frozen."

In my opinion the imposition of price-and-wage controls was President Nixon's one serious economic-policy mistake. But that decision was within the range of options urged upon him by respected economists, mainly Democrats. The control system gave the administration extraordinary power over individual businesses. I do not believe there was any case in which this power was improperly used.

Nixon recognized and utilized talent, whatever its political connection. The leading example was George Shultz. He saw in this professor, whom he had never met before he invited him to be secretary of labor, a man of extraordinary intelligence, management ability, and integrity. He quickly elevated him to director of the Office of Management and Budget and then secretary of the Treasury. There must have been few administrations that had as much talent in the two senior Cabinet positions--State and Treasury--as Nixon's had in Kissinger and Shultz.

I do not put down these few recollections in order to excuse Richard Nixon. I knew him and liked and respected him. I am not inclined to judge him. I do not feel I have the wisdom and moral elevation to do that. Anyway, what would be the point? He is now beyond our--or, at least, my--power to add or detract. I only want to suggest that those who feel the need and ability to judge him should try to look beyond the Revelation of the Day.

Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is a member of the board of contributors at the Wall Street Journal.