Being ‘Nixonian’ Ain’t What It Used to Be

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is plenty upset. The leak of a surreptitious recording of one of his reelection campaign’s strategy sessions captures McConnell and his aides discussing possible attacks on actress Ashley Judd – at the time a potential Democratic opponent – over her past struggles with depression and religious views.

800px-Nixon_edited_transcriptsAlthough Mother Jones magazine’s David Corn, who obtained the scoop, hasn’t revealed the source, McConnell accused Democrats of bugging his campaign headquarters. “A quite Nixonian move,” is how he described the scenario.

There might be irony in attacking a political rival by likening him (or her) to a former president from your own party. But the adjective “Nixonian,” which originally meant anything pertaining to the policies, worldview or personal style of Richard Nixon – i.e., “Nixonian diplomacy,” “Nixonian wave-price controls” or “Nixonian mumbling”- has taken on a decidedly negative connotation since the 37th president resigned in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. As etymologist Philip Gooden notes, the word is “most likely to refer to his frequently paranoid outbursts, his unscrupulous and often illegal attempts to do down his opponents, and his overwhelming sense of being misjudged.”

But over nearly four decades, so many things and people have been called Nixonian – the word has appeared in nearly 14,000 New York Times articles alone – that there’s been an inevitable watering down of the term. To illustrate that point, let’s look at some of the more unlikely “Nixonian” figures and political moves.

  • Jimmy Carter. The Georgia Democrat wrested the White House from Gerald Ford in 1976 partly because of widespread public outrage over Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Yet in 1980, independent presidential candidate John Anderson accused incumbent President Carter of “Nixonian” tactics, supposedly because Carter’s campaign was trying to keep Anderson off the general-election ballot in some states.
  • The New York Times. The newspaper that earned a spot on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” would seem unlikely to become Nixonian. Yet Salon.com called the Times the “Nixonian henchmen of today” because the paper had published an unflattering profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – whose leaks of classified U.S. diplomatic cables actually were published by the Times.
  • Barack Obama. Calling the recent surreptitious recording “Nixonian” isn’t McConnell’s first pejorative use of the former president’s name. Last year, on Obama’s watch, McConnell characterized an IRS probe of tax-exempt groups’ political spending: “It’s very Nixonian, reminiscent of the Nixon years where there was an enemies list at the White House. This is a reckless and ruthless administration that will do anything to quiet the voices of its opponents.”

 

The use of “Nixonian” has gotten so out of hand, in fact, that a few years back, the Richard Nixon Foundation publicly pondered waging a campaign to reclaim the word, pointing out that the former president had some positive achievements.

 

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