Nixonites then and now
For several days I’ve had heated discussions on Facebook over THE issue of the day (many days) President Trump. Passersby at my house know that I hold our President in low regard. And yet in discussing him pro and con I’ve tried to be lawyerly. An old college chum echoed Trump’s call to stop MS 13, drugs, rapists and sex traffickers at the border. A Bernie Sanders supporting shirttail relative lambasted Hillary Clinton for sabotaging Bernie Sanders in her campaign for the Democratic nomination. I begged to disagree with both. Searching for middle ground is an old habit of mine.
Yesterday I discovered that Minnesota University, Mankato has put every past issue of its student newspaper online. Perusing them I rediscovered a front-page picture of me with suitably shaggy 1970’s hair. Under it was the caption, “Nixonite Harry Welty.”
As a 4th grader in 1960 I had cockily , assured my neighbor and classmate, Becky, that Vice President Nixon would clean John Kennedy’s clock. To my chagrin Becky’s choice became President.
By the time I was a debater in high school 7 years later, Dick Nixon had gone on to lose an election for the lesser office of Governor of California. He’d sulked and ungraciously told the Press, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” That may be where seed of distrust in the Fourth Estate was first sown into the Republican Party.
As a debater I read about how Nixon accepted gifts as Vice President; his Checker’s speech, his claim that he was a “cloth coat” Republican. I learned about his investigation of Communist infiltration on the House Un-American Activities Committee. I learned this as I was watching him campaign for President once again this time appealing to the segregationist candidate, George Wallace’s supporters with promises of “law and order.” Just wait till those black folks rioted again like they did when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
My Republican Parents had voted for LBJ in 1964 and by senior high school I was no longer a Republican. My instinct told me Nixon was trouble. When I was assigned to give a speech in a history class I gave one in support of Hubert Humphrey for President. Silly me. To young Democrats of 1968 the “Happy Warrior” was their Hillary Clinton. Unwittingly, and without remorse, they helped elect Richard Nixon President.
As the fifth best debater on our 4-person debate team I quit in my senior year. I’d concluded that Debate was more flash and dazzle rather than something designed to open people’s minds. Debates had played important roles in our nation’s history. Daniel Webster was so good he got the better of the Devil but they rarely changed made up minds. Heck, JFK was said to have beat Nixon in his 1960 debate because, unlike the sweaty, 4 O’clocked Nixon, he didn’t turn down makeup.
As a senior I became a competitive Story Teller. I decided that story telling was a better way to open eyes, ears and hearts. It put me in the company of Aesop, Twain, Lincoln and the Nazarene. At least, that’s how I saw it but debate had taught me one valuable lesson. I learned how to debate either side of an argument. That’s also known as putting the other fellow’s shoe on and trying it out.
By the first month of College I was making a terrible nuisance of myself blocking the main streets of Mankato in a war protest. I came back from that experience realizing I had done more to make my side disagreeable to the public than the war mongers I was protesting against. This did not turn me into a Nixon loving Republican but in short order I found myself in the thick of campus politics with the threat of Vietnam still hanging over my head just as it had when I was in junior and senior high. Only now, it was Republican Nixon’s morass not Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s.
Republican Nixon, like Donald Trump helped bring division to an American Public that had gotten used to seeing the two national political parties as twins, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. But back then the two parties fought over the middle whereas today they fight for the edges or what Teddy Roosevelt called the “lunatic fringe.”
I grew tired of ignorant college kids stereotyping all Republicans as rich war mongers. That was my family they were talking about. So, when a College Republican asked me if I’d like to join I did - as a peace lover in 1972. Even as I joined my plan was to vote for the Democrat George McGovern for President. In the meantime, I’d help local Republicans run for Minnesota’s legislature. I traveled the state, got at least one legislator elected and wrecked a van belonging to the Republican Party but that’s another story.
Back at college in the fall a couple college debaters challenged the College Republicans to a Nixon vs. McGovern debate. The CR’s were unpopular and threadbare. It was me and a half dozen freshmen. Defending Nixon was the last thing I wanted to do but I took a deep breath and agreed to defend the hated President. Both sides deserved an honest debate.
The story I read online said 100 students were in the Student Union audience. My memory inflated that attendance. I began with a caveat explaining that I had several personal disagreements with Mr. Nixon’s policies. It was not Lincoln - Douglas.
When it was over two dear friends of mine from high school rushed up to ask me how I could have possibly defended Richard Nixon. The question stung and I did not justify myself. As far as I was concerned, I’d already explained that I was there to offer an honest debate, not defend the Anti-Christ.
I was pleased that my entire nuclear family voted for George McGovern. From that time on I’ve never felt the slightest need to vote a straight-party-ticket. I simply bit my lips when I didn’t support a Republican candidate. On the other hand, I never hid how I felt about controversial issues. There was a time the Republican party was desperate for young people and made no demands on their conscience. Sadly, today’s parties are Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dumber.
Harry Welty is a local eccentric and perennial candidate for office in Duluth who also pontificates on his blog: www.lincolndemocrat.com.