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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 4 - The Barker of Slippery Gulch

A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder. 


 Of course the fragmentation of the police in the United States has largely resulted from the deliberate intention of denying the federal government a possible instrument of tyranny. 



Richard Milhous Nixon did not follow any of the charted channels of American politics in his extraordinary passage to the presidency. Whereas other American presidents could point to their "humble origins" with some sort of romantic pride (or even describe their family summer home as a "log cabin"), Nixon really suffered during his childhood from poverty. His father, Frank Nixon, moved to California at the turn of the century after having been frostbitten working in an open streetcar in Columbus, Ohio. After working as a farmhand and oil roustabout, he attempted to cultivate lemons outside Los Angeles. After Richard was born, on January 9, 1913, Nixon abandoned the "lemon -ranch," and the family moved to the Quaker community of Whittier, California. They were so impoverished that Nixon's mother was forced to work as a scrubwoman in a sanatorium in Arizona in order to pay for the treatment of Richard's brother Harold, who suffered from tuberculosis. At the age of ten Richard Nixon was sent to work as a farm laborer to help out his family. He fully understood the degrading nature of poverty; at the age of fourteen he was forced to work as a barker for a fortune wheel for the Slippery Gulch Rodeo, a cover for illegal gambling rooms in back of the rodeo." 

Young Nixon also exercised his oratory skills on the Whittier High School debating team and won prizes for the best oration on the Constitution. He graduated from high school in the. depths of the Depression, and worked his way through a small Quaker college in Whittier while living at home and supporting his family. Then, winning a scholarship, he attended law school at Duke University. Although he distinguished himself and graduated third in his class, all the prestigious New York law firms where he applied for a job turned down his application, apparently because he did not have the right contacts or connections. He continued to eke out a living as a clerk in a local law office in Whittier for the first few years after law school; then, when World War II broke out, he joined the Navy as a junior officer. He was eventually sent to Middle River, Maryland, to assist the Navy in liquidating contracts for a flying-boat project (in which Howard Hughes also took an active interest).

Late in 1945, a few months after he completed the settlement for the Navy on the boat project, Nixon was invited by a group of local businessmen, in his hometown of Whittier, to seek the Republican nomination for the congressional seat then held by Jerry Voorhis, a liberal Democrat. But until that time, Nixon had had no grounding in local California politics-indeed, he attended his first political rally in 1945-and therefore, in lieu of local issues, he played upon a more generalized fear: the fear of communism. In likening communism to an invisible virus that infects the body politic, he was able to arouse fears among the public that even avowed non-Communists might serve as carriers of this dread disease. Thus, even though his opponent Voorhis was outspoken in his criticism Of Communism, Nixon labeled him in the public's mind as a tool of communism. The politics of fear worked for Nixon, and he was elected to Congress in 1946 and reelected in 1948. In 1950 he defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas for her seat in the United States Senate, having defamed his opponent as the "pink lady" and a "dupe" of communism. In the Senate, he so adroitly managed the putative menace of international communism that General Dwight D. Eisenhower chose him as his vice-presidential candidate. In 1952, seven years after he entered politics as a Navy veteran, the former barker from Slippery Gulch was elected vice-president of the United States.

During the next eight years, as vice-president, Nixon traveled widely to the various power centers of the world, including the Soviet Union, and served as one of President Eisenhower's main liaisons with the National Security Council. In a sense then, even as vice-president, Nixon had relatively little experience with domestic issues in America.

In 1960, however, Nixon found that times had changed in American politics: the fears of communism which he had so successfully exploited in the late forties and early fifties had subsided, and Americans were becoming increasingly concerned with domestic problems rather than international ones. In a close election in 1960 he was defeated for the presidency by John F. Kennedy; and two years later he was defeated by Pat Brown for the governorship of California. Rather than a national hero of the Republican party, he was now a defeated man without a future in politics. In 1963 former vice-president Nixon moved to New York City and joined, as a senior partner, the law firm of Mudge, Stern, Baldwin and Todd.

Though he had not entirely abandoned his dreams and schemes of being president, Nixon realized that the menace of communism on which he built his early reputation no longer was an effective focus for organizing the fears of the American public. Since the Cold War had waned as a national concern, domestic issues received increasingly more attention in the national press. The former vice-president had no claim to any special knowledge or competence in these domestic fields; he was rarely called upon for public comment. Indeed, after his 1962 defeat in the California gubernatorial election, ABC News presented Nixon's "political obituary." If he was again to become a center of political attention, Nixon foresaw that he would have to identify himself with the control of a new menace. Thus he turned to the growing unease that was being reported out of the major cities in America-riots had erupted in Los Angeles, New York, and other major cities in the mid-1960s (and though not a new phenomenon in themselves, they were for the first time nationally televised); crime rates, as reported by the FBI, had practically doubled between 1960 and 1967; and polls were indicating that personal safety from crimes was rapidly becoming the dominant concern of the electorate. Until then, the law-and-order battle cry had been used mainly by local politicians for local problems and as a shibboleth for the race problem and crime control; Nixon found he could now use it to organize fears on a wider scale. In 1967 Nixon, using much the same rhetoric as that employed against the threat of international communism, attempted in an article in Readers Digest-entitled "What Has Happened to America?"-to elevate local crime to the status of a national menace jeopardizing the very survival of the nation. Successfully capturing law and order as a political issue, he argued that "in a few short years ... America has become among the most lawless and violent [nations] in the history of free people" because liberal decisions in the courts were "weakening the peace forces against the criminal forces." As in his earlier war, against the Communist menace, Nixon suggested that government officials and judges were soft on crime and were subverting the efforts of police to prevent criminals from preying on an innocent society.

 After he received the Republican nomination for president in 1968, he immediately ordered his chief speech writers to develop law and order into a major theme of his campaign. Nixon, of course, did not invent the issue of law and order. Until 1968, however, the law and order issue in American politics was confined mainly to the state and local levels, as noted in the case of Nelson Rockefeller, and scant, if any, mention of this motif can be found in prior presidential campaigns. To be sure, politicians had earlier urged "wars" or "crusades" against alleged criminal conspiracies-notably, the Mafia as a means of achieving a national reputation. (Estes Kefauver and Robert F. Kennedy had both waged highly publicized wars against conspiracies of organized crime and had gained national prominence for their efforts, though there were few indictments.*) For the most part, however, these earlier efforts were intended only to produce the sort of publicity which would allay the fears of the public by exposing a few symbolic "chiefs" of the underworld (who usually turned out to be bookies). Nixon played on the law-and-order theme in a very different way: the target be directed his audience's attention to was unorganized crime that directly threatened the life and safety of all - muggings, murder, robbery, rape, and burglary. The threat to the public safety that he depicted was not a handful of Mafia chiefs but the subversion of the legal system by those who were more sympathetic to the rights of criminals than to the protection of the innocent. Nixon shrewdly perceived that law and order could be effectively transposed into an issue of the Democrats' undermining of public authority.

* Victor S. Navasky has given an excellent account in Kennedy Justice of how Attorney General Kennedy presented Joseph Valachi, who claimed to be a member of the criminal conspiracy while in prison, to the national media in order to mobilize support for legislation expanding wiretap and other authorities being proposed by the Kennedy administration-clearly an adumbration of the future.

Even at this early stage, Nixon realized that unless he could preempt the crime issue for himself by generalizing it, Governor George Wallace, who was making an independent bid for the presidency in 1968, could be expected to exploit it to attract votes among Nixon's natural constituency.

Though Nixon successfully developed law and order into a principal issue of the 1968 campaign, he intentionally avoided defining the problem in anything more than a vague way. Patrick J. Buchanan, a thirty-one-year-old journalist from St. Louis who was then working as Nixon's chief speech writer on the law-and-order issue, recalls the polls' suggesting that the public believed that lawlessness could be dealt with by a more determined effort of the federal government. However, at that stage, Nixon's speech writers had little specific knowledge about the characteristics or causes of crime and disorder. Although Governor Nelson Rockefeller had brilliantly pioneered the heroin menace in New York State, and Nixon himself realized the political potential of a drug-abuse menace, the candidate's strategists were not yet fully conversant with the vocabulary of dread that was used by Rockefeller to exploit the drug issue. As late as September 12, 1968, Buchanan teletyped Martin Pollner, a member of Nixon's law firm and campaign staff who had been a former prosecutor in New York City, that it was "vital that we get some background on the narcotics problem in this country." Pollner immediately consulted with John W. Dean, 111, another lawyer-working in the Nixon campaign, and then wrote a four-page memorandum to Buchanan-"Potential Materials and Recommendations for R.N.'s Position on Narcotics and Drug Abuse." Then, with the help of Peter Velde, another lawyer on the campaign staff, Pollner sent another memorandum on the "narcotics problem in southern California." These analyses detailing the problems of law enforcement and rehabilitation, however, were far too specific for Nixon. The speech he gave on the subject of narcotics in September, 1968, in Anaheim, California, for which Buchanan requested this research, began with Nixon's describing a letter that he had supposedly received from a nineteen-year-old drug addict. Then, using the Hobsonian imagery of heroin's corrupting innocents, he asserted, "Narcotics are a modern curse of American youth.... I will take the executive steps necessary to make our borders more secure against the pestilence of narcotics." But narcotics remained only a subsidiary issue in the 1968 campaign. The strategists instead played upon the more general fear of personal violence, saturating television across the nation with commercials that showed an obviously nervous middle aged woman walking down the street on a dark, wet night while an announcer stated, "Crimes of violence in the United States have almost doubled in recent years ... today a violent crime is committed every sixty seconds ... a robbery every two and a half minutes... a mugging every six minutes ... a murder every forty-three minutes... and it will get worse unless we take the offensive. . . ." The commercials ended with the message, "This time vote like your whole world depended on it." After winning the election by a narrow margin, Nixon was expected to deal effectively with the menace to law and order that he himself had helped to popularize. But for him it was an opportunity, not a problem.



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