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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Learning Objective Two: Discuss and explain the difference between REALISTIC IDEALISM and POLITICAL IDEALISM and use the personality and political philosophy of Richard Nixon to illustrate the differences

Learning Objective Two: Discuss and explain the difference between REALISTIC IDEALISM and POLITICAL IDEALISM and use the personality and political philosophy of Richard Nixon to illustrate the differences

Realistic Idealism is a term used to define political morality or explains political action. It is a term that describes both domestic and foreign politics.

Political Idealism is a term used to define personal morality in politics, and is the bases for establishing domestic and foreign policy. However, there is also a tendency for some to use political idealism as there guiding principle in domestic and foreign politics. As will be discussed, when political idealism is used as the guiding principle in foreign or domestic politics, it is usually ineffective.

There are a number of characteristics about Richard Nixon that must be taken into account in order to understand him and his politics.

  • ( 1) his deep personal pride and his tremendously competitive nature,
  • (2) his struggle between the politics of realistic idealism and idealistic realism,
  • (3) his belief in blind loyalty, to family, country and the institution, of the presidency.

Because of his competitive nature, Nixon did not know the meaning of the word quit. Thus, when he came upon a problem, political or otherwise, he would always find a way to win or achieve his goals.


Nixon credited "Chief ' Newman, (Newman, called "Chief ' by everyone because of his Indian blood) his college football coach, with drilling into him "a competitive spirit and the determination to come back after you have been knocked down or after you lose."


Nixon described Coach Newman as a man he admired "more...than ...any man I have ever known aside from my father." Newman was also noted for telling his players, "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser." He said it was all a question of "being willing to pay the price." After a loss, he would say, "Now look here, I don't believe in this business about being a good loser. You've got to hate to lose, and that means that once you lose, then you fight back."


Nixon's whole political career exemplifies coming back after he has been knocked down. In his memoirs, Nixon declared, "There is no way I can adequately describe Chief Newman's influence on me."


[Nixon appears to be a man of strong principles with clearly defined political interest. In carrying out his political interest or higher goals for the country and the world as he saw them, he was often caught between the principles of realistic idealism and political idealism.


Realistic idealism is a form of pragmatism that reflects the reality and

morality of politics. Realistic idealism or political morality (used interchangeably from this point forward) comes into play as a politician's desire to reach his goals.

Political morality is best put into perspective by a quote from Richard Nixon. Nixon makes it clear that the reality. of politics is having the guts to do what it take to get the job done, even if it means the violation of some idealistic principles in order to accomplish higher goals. This is reflected in the following quotes:


"There are times when unpleasant means are justified in the service of a great goal. But despite the protests of the process-lovers, a proper means NEVER justifies an unsatisfactory end. No matter how democratic. And meticulously correct it may be, a political process that .cannot produce progress for a nation has gone seriously awry...

"There is no magic in democracy. The Constitution, extraordinary document that it is, cannot by itself produce a moment of peace or an instant of prosperity. Only the will and the vision of leaders, exercised through the democratic system, sometimes restrained by it, occasionally even exceeding it, can bring about these goals."


“Idealism without pragmatism is impotent. Pragmatism without idealism is meaningless. The key to effective leadership is pragmatic idealism.”

The key Constitutional and political question is what actions, if any, are justified when a leader feels that it is essential for him or her to stay in power in order to reach these higher goals? Or when does this pragmatic form of realistic idealism become a self-seeking brand of political morality?


For example, in 1861, Abraham Lincoln, responding to the secession of

the southern states from the Union, ordered southern ports to be

blockaded , seized several newspapers, increased the size of the army , and spent unappropriated funds, all on his own authority. He defended his actions in a public letter to a Kentucky newspaper editor:


"My oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed on me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government --that nation, of which the Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law, life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to protect a limb. I felt that measures otherwise unconstitutional might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preserving of the nation. Right or wrong, I assume this ground, and now avow it."


Lincoln's argument reflects that John Locke was right---that situations do arise in the lives of nations in which the rule of law must be either temporarily set aside or lost altogether, and that the

executive is the only part of the government that can make these judgments. .. '


The framers of the Constitution, is designing the presidency as a one-person office whose occupant is chosen by the entire country, probably understood this as well, even if they resisted saying so explicitly for political reasons .


As already stated; political idealism as the basis of personal .morality in politics

and is the desire to create, the perfect solution.


In foreign policy, Woodrow Wilson with his attempt to create world peace after World War I with the League of Nations is the classic example. However, Nixon is also an example of political idealism.


Like Wilson, Nixon in Vietnam attempted to achieve an impossible task trying to gain a democratic and respectable settlement with the Vietnam War . Typical of Nixon's competitive nature, tenacityand his realistic idealism approach to politics he could not concede ,Vietnam , in ,attempts to reach ahigher goal. His Vietnam effort was the catalyst that started his political demise on the domesticfront.


For example, with the Vietnam War, from 1970 to 1973, Nixon suppressed information on the bombing of Cambodia. At this same time;- some of his aides participated in a cover-up involving falsification of military records.


Nixon's Cambodian activities is an example of his foreign

politics, not his foreign policy. Nixon's policy was to achieve the higher goal, his politics of the Cambodian strategy was to make the impossible possible, a democratic Vietnam. Thus, realistic idealism was being used to help accomplish his political idealism.


This practice of realistic idealism as used in the Vietnam War was not created by Nixon . Franklin D. Roosevelt , rated by many historians as the second greatest president in our history, concealed the extent of his involvement as a silent partner in the Allied war effort for fear that such revelation might lead to his electoral defeat in 1940, and a change in the direction of national policy .


This behavior was justified in much the same way Cambodia was with Nixon. Which was, the president and his advisors had a better grasp of what constituted national security than did the

well-meaning , but untutored public. Regardless of whether the public likes it, this is the reality of politics , the general attitude of most of our elected officials and a fairly accurate statement.


In discussing domestic policy v. domestic politics , Nixon was also a product of political idealism on domestic policy. However on domestic politics, like foreign politics he represents realistic idealism---as Watergate has demonstrated.


In domestic .politics, political idealism is mostly INEFFECTIVE as demonstrated DY. the presidency of Jimmy Carter. In order to make this point clear, an example of Carter's presidency will be used.


Carter's image of the presidency was based on his belief that an issue and a president's actions would be evaluated by the public on the merits of the results and its basis for the public and the public good.


He characteristically told his Cabinet and aides to provide him with the best policies, irrespective of:political consideration, and let.-him worry about the politics

The problem for Carter is that he never dealt with the politics until it was too late. At the very beginning of his administration he perceived policy-making procedures and his leadership role as nonpolitical. As a non-coalition builder , he was comfortable neither with Congress, as an institution , nor with many of its members. He viewed Congress as a nesting place for special interests and he was somehow elected to be different kind of President. Carter's establishment of a personal political morality in domestic politics is best illustrated with his handling of water projects that were proposed by members of Congress at he beginning of his administration .


Many of the water projects were a classic example of financial waste and pork-barreling at the federal level. The projects were according to Carter: "unnecessary dams and water projects that would cost billions of dollars and often doing more harm than good."

Morally, Carter was right in challenging the method by which these projects were developed. Politically , however, it was the wrong move to cut projects that were already under way and not tell the Congressmen involved. Carter was also rather explicit in condemning congressional politics on this issue. Hence, members of Congress were faced with not only losing their projects, but also their

self-esteem .


Carter seems to have understood the importance of these water projects as "major political plums" that would create temporary construction jobs and win votes, but he viewed the national interest as more important and expected members of Congress to follow suit.


The problem with Carter's veto on the water projects was some members of Congress could agree with his goals, but not with his tactics. The net effect of the handling of the water projects left a residual of bad taste in the mouths of some liberal Democrats that carried on throughout his

administration in the form of a lack of trust and respect for him as a politician. In other words Carter's use of idealistic realism to establish a political morality failed with Congress ,and was not understood and accepted by the American people.


In conclusion, the fundamental components to Nixon's personality and political philosophy; an extremely competitive spirit, tremendous personal pride, sensitivity to criticism, his conflict between the principles of realistic idealism and idealistic realism, and an aggressiveness with a strong need for a sense of accomplishment should be kept in mind, when analyzing the events surrounding the anti-war movement and the Watergate break-in. Nixon's reaction to the events of his presidency were very logical and predictable.


Nixon's sense of politics lead him to equate realistic idealism with foreign and domestic politics, and political idealism with foreign and domestic policy.


An Example of realistic idealism in politics during the Reagan-Bush administration is found with the Iran arms-and-hostages deal. The following is George Bush's explanation of the deal.