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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.


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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