The World Behind Watergate

Richard Nixon et al.
Richard Nixon et al.; drawing by David Levine

The bedfellows politics makes are never strange; it only seems that way to those who have not watched the courtship. In Richard Nixon’s case, notwithstanding his presence in national politics for the last twenty-five years, those courtships have remained remarkably unexamined—or, when examined, remarkably misunderstood—and as a result the bedfellows he has acquired have remained unusually obscure both to the public and to the political pundits who are supposed to conjure with such things. Certain obvious relationships, to be sure, have been given attention—the back-scratching of Nixon and his old friend and Pepsico chairman Donald Kendall, for example,1 the latest evidence of which is Washington’s gift of the Soviet soft-drink franchise to Pepsi-Cola. But the wider pattern of his associations, the character of his power base, remains essentially obscure. This seems particularly dangerous in view of the evidence that these people will be influential in American government not only for the next four years but for the foreseeable future.

The Nixonian bedfellows, the people whose creed the President expresses and whose interests he guards, are, to generalize, the economic sovereigns of America’s Southern rim, the “sunbelt” that runs from Southern California, through Arizona and Texas, down to the Florida keys. They are for the most part new-money people, without the family fortunes and backgrounds of Eastern wealth (Rockefellers, DuPonts, etc.), people whose fortunes have been made only in the postwar decades, mostly in new industries such as aerospace and defense contracting, in oil, natural gas, and allied businesses, usually domestic rather than international, and in real-estate operations during the postwar sunbelt population boom.

They are “self-made” men and women, in the sense that they did not generally inherit great riches (though of course in another sense they are government-made, depending, as in oil and aerospace, on large favors from Washington, but they hardly like to think of it that way), and they tend to a notable degree to be politically conservative, even retrograde, usually anti-union, antiblack, anticonsumer, and antiregulation, and quite often associated with professional “anti-communist” organizations. Whether because of the newness of their position, their frontier heritage, or their lack of old-school ties, they tend to be without particular concerns about the niceties of business ethics and morals, and therefore to be connected more than earlier money would have thought wise with shady speculations, political influence-peddling, corrupt unions, and even organized crime.

The political ascendancy of these Southern-rim people—those whom Carl Oglesby once called “the cowboys,” as distinct from “the yankees” of old Eastern money—has taken place coincidentally with their economic growth in the last generation. Their power on a state level was solidified a decade or so ago, and they made certain inroads to national influence with Johnson’s assumption of the presidency in 1963.2 But it was not until the election of Richard Nixon in 1968—and even more now during a second term…

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