By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON – This month marks the 40th anniversary of an event so unexpected that it created a phrase that’s become part of our political lexicon: The shorthand is “Nixon goes to China,” meaning a moment in which a leader reverses his past positions to do something that is shocking but beneficial.
Richard Nixon is hardly a role model, overall; he was a devious president who encouraged illegal actions by his subordinates. But he was a clever strategist – never more so than in the opening to China that culminated in his February 1972 visit to Beijing. Yet even Nixon, the practiced hypocrite, might not dare to buck conformity today.
Doing the unexpected is almost forbidden in American politics these days. We pretend that good politicians are the ones who think the same thing, always, forever.
So here’s a salute to inconsistency, cunning and other un-American traits that made Nixon’s opening to China possible. As we approach this week’s anniversary of his departure for Beijing, it’s useful to look back at one of the biggest – and best – flip-flops in American history.
Nixon arguably was the only U.S. politician who could have gotten away with such a bold move. He had the right-wing credentials, as an anti-communist and advocate of Taiwan.
It’s interesting, looking back, to see how carefully Nixon prepared the way. In April 1971, he approved a trip to China by the U.S. national pingpong team, announced a plan to ease travel and trade restrictions, and said that one of his long-term goals was the normalization of relations with China. The Chinese responded that spring, through Pakistan, that Nixon himself would be welcome in Beijing. Nixon initially sent Kissinger instead, on a July 1971 secret mission that was facilitated by the Pakistanis. According to Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, Kissinger sent a one-word coded message that his mission had succeeded: “Eureka.”
Nixon announced Kissinger’s mind-boggling trip on television with what, in retrospect, was a comforting lie: He said the opening to China “will not be at the expense of our old friends” in Taiwan.
Nixon departed on his own journey to Beijing on Feb. 17, 1972. His words to Mao Zedong, quoted by Ambrose, are a testimonial to the value of changing course when it’s advantageous to do so: “You are one who sees when an opportunity comes, and then knows that you must seize the hour and seize the day,” Nixon said, paraphrasing Mao’s own words.
Before leaving China on Feb. 28, Nixon said at a banquet in his honor: “This was the week that changed the world.”
Great presidential decisions are often ones that escape the boundaries of what a leader may have said in the past, or what his political advisers recommend, or what the conventional wisdom of the day seems to supports. That was true of Nixon in China, Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis, Roosevelt in the Great Depression, Lincoln in the Civil War.
The leader who can deal with America’s problems today may be the one who’s ready to respond to complaints that his policies go against past positions with a simple statement: So what? I’m doing what’s right for the country.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.