What's the difference between Richard Nixon and Sarah Palin? Lipstick. (Well, that and military service, graduate education, a keen intellect, years of national political experience and a proven grasp of policy foreign and domestic.) But as a fellow "serial collector of resentments", the half-term Alaska governor is Nixon's heir. When it comes to the paranoid style, the politics of payback, the perpetual war on the press and the championing of "real Americans" versus supposed elites, the Mama Grizzly is the second coming of Tricky Dick.
On Thanksgiving of all days, Sarah Palin was her Nixon best in attacking the president and the press. Furious about the understandable media reaction to her gaffe about "our North Korean allies," the pitbull in lipstick took to Facebook to again complain that the media did not show "some consistency on this issue" and "completely makes things up without doing even rudimentary fact-checking."
That online outburst followed her declaration on Fox News earlier in the week that:
"I want to help clean up the state that is so sorry today of journalism. And I have a communications degree. I studied journalism, who, what, where, when, and why of reporting. I will speak to reporters who still understand that cornerstone of our democracy, that expectation that the public has for truth to be reported. And then we get to decide our own opinion based on the facts reported to us."
As it turns out, Sarah Palin is just reading from the Richard Nixon playbook. In 1972, just one month after defeating George McGovern in an epic landslide, Nixon summed up his press bashing Henry Kissinger. As CBS recounted:
"Never forget. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy." Almost shouting he repeated, "professors are the enemy!" He told former Harvard professor Kissinger, "Write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it."
And to be sure, those professors are just part of the "elite" supposedly out to get Nixon and Palin alike.
Just days after her nomination by John McCain, Palin set the tone by protesting, "I've learned quickly these past few days that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone." Launching her Going Rogue book tour last year Palin told Rush Limbaugh, "I'm not trying to reach the liberal elites in this country, and it's a good thing I'm not trying to, 'cause I'm not succeeding there." And after Barbara Bush said of Palin, "I think she's very happy in Alaska, and I hope she'll stay there," the average hockey mom punched back:
"I don't want to sort of concede that we have to get used to this kind of thing because I think the majority of Americans don't want to put up with the blue bloods -- and I say it with all due respect because I love the Bushes -- but the blue bloods who want to pick and choose their winners instead of allowing competition to pick and choose the winners."
(Ironically, Nixon himself said of Barbara Bush, "she knows how to hate.")
At Whittier College, Nixon's alma mater, there was the social "in" crowd that formed an elite social club called the Franklins. Only the wealthiest students could deign to join the Franklins. Young Nixon, ever the outcast in this circle joined with his fellow shunned lumpenproletariat and formed a rival group called the Orthogonians. The word implied that the group rejected the elitist assumptions of the Franklins and refused to cede social authority to the well-to-do.
That proud chip on the shoulder, on display at Whittier and later at Duke law school, would be a hallmark of Nixon's politics. But if "Richard Nixon mastered the art of self-pity and resentment," after her journey through five colleges Sarah Palin mastered it as well. As Picasso famously said, "Bad artists copy. Good artists steal."
"In these volatile times when we are a nation at war, now more than ever is when we need a commander-in-chief, not a constitutional law professor lecturing us from a lectern."
Implicit in her criticism of Professor Obama is an accusation of weakness. With her now trademark "man up" sound bite directed at both GOP leaders and an "impotent" and "limp" press, Palin routinely calls her enemies' manhood into question. And that includes the President. When it comes to illegal immigration, Palin declared:
"Jan Brewer has the cojones that our President does not have. If our own president will not enforce a federal law, more power to Jan Brewer."
It's not hard to imagine Palin simply substituting Obama for Stevenson and terrorists or illegal immigrants for communists in Nixon's infamous smear:
"Adlai the Appeaser...got a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment."
Importantly for Nixon and Palin alike, the professors and students, the intellectuals, activists and their ilk are not real Americans. From the 2008 campaign on, Palin updated and repackaged Nixon's famous "silent majority." As she put it during an October 2008 rally in North Carolina, rural Republicans are the real Americans:
"We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe" -- here the audience interrupted Palin with applause and cheers -- "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."
Like Nixon and other Republicans, Palin proclaimed the superiority of Heartland values to be self-evident. As she put it two years ago, "I think we need a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street there, brought to Washington."
To be sure, part of what Sarah Palin wants to bring to Washington from Wasilla is her politics of payback. As Troopergate among other episodes show, Sarah Palin like Richard Nixon was quick to deploy the resources of government against her political opponents and personal enemies. As for her back taxes, RNC haul, ethics violations, travel per diems and the like, it's not hard to imagine Palin with her own Plumbers and Enemies List in the Oval Office insisting, "When the President does it, that means that it's not illegal."
As for his political opponents, President Nixon on his last day in office made clear it was all about the hate:
"Always remember that others may hate you but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."
And so it was this weekend, the former Alaska Governor turned Fox News regular channeled Tricky Dick in defending her teenage daughter's use of an anti-gay slur:
"People probably think that my greatest frustration is the lies that are told in the tabloids and on hateful blogs full of anonymous sources about my family … and there are constant everyday lies that we have to read that are out there in the public. But my family and I…thick skin…we can take it, you know…we can take what the haters say despite the fact that there’s injustice in the situation.
"I mean, look at the other day. Willow, finally, my 16 year old, she had had it up to here with somebody saying very, very hateful things about the family and saying mean things about her little brother Trig, and Willow finally responded and she used a bad word when she responded in defense of her family. And her response became national news, even hard news copy it turned into, so that’s ridiculous and I had to explain to her, 'Willow, there is no justice here but you have to just zip your lip and let’s move forward.'"
(If this sideshow provoked that kind of wrath, one can only imagine Sarah's fury when former GOP Congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough urged Republican leaders to "man up" and "take on Palin.")
As he left under the cloud of Watergate in August 1974, President Nixon told the American people:
"I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is opposed to every instinct in my body. But as president I must put the interests of America first Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow."
Thirty-five years later, Governor Sarah Palin experienced no such qualms as she left office. Her resignation was not the driven by the lure of millions of dollars, she claimed. Instead, she insisted, "It's all for Alaska" and offered her now classic inversion of reality:
"It may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand: "Sit down and shut up", but that's the worthless, easy path; that's a quitter's way out."
So much for Tricky Dick's admonition that "A man is not finished when he is defeated; he is finished when he quits." Then again, Richard Nixon never met a Mama Grizzly.
Not long before his assassination in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy said of the man who would soon be in the White House, "Richard Nixon represents the dark side of the American spirit." RFK never met Sarah Palin.
(An earlier version of this piece appeared at Perrspectives.)