As a child of the turbulent 1970s, I never thought I'd write these words, but here goes: Bring back Richard Nixon.
There, I said it. I feel better. Kind of.
As coincidence would have it, just about the time the federal government was shut down by temperamental zealots displaying the emotional maturity of 3-year-olds, I happened across a 1971 issue of Life magazine. (Among my nerdy hobbies is collecting old periodicals.)
The collision of those two events started me longing for Tricky Dick.
After I'd taken the magazine home, I discovered its articles included a lengthy op-ed by George Romney, the former governor of Michigan who in 1971 was Nixon's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He also was the dad of future Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but no one knew then who Mitt would become.
As a loyal Republican and member of Nixon's cabinet, the elder Romney had taken up his pen to extol his boss' many virtues. Among Romney's talking points:
Under Nixon, "the number of Americans getting food stamps has tripled to 10 million; the number getting food assistance nearly doubled to 12 million."
Nixon expanded welfare? Republicans once considered this a virtue?
Romney also praised Nixon's "37-point environmental program ... extension of unemployment insurance to five million Americans ... the higher education bill ... Social Security reforms; coal mine safety; consumer proposals; the occupational health and safety law; veterans' programs; manpower training ..."
Having come of age during Nixon's spectacular fall from power, I largely remembered him as among the rightest-wing politicians of my time.
Memory is a tricky thing, even regarding Tricky Dick.
After reading the Life article, I went online to do some additional research.
What I found — from multiple sources, including old Social Security Administration documents, a White House biography and a couple of commentators who'd already pointed out what I'm about to say here — intrigued me.
Nixon created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to protect workers from dangerous conditions. He created the Environmental Protection Agency. He backed the 1970 Clean Air Act.
He federalized Medicaid. He pushed to increase Social Security benefits by 10 percent in one swoop and then add automatic cost-of-living raises. He proposed an expanded, federally funded childcare program for poor working mothers.
He proposed a universal health care system more sweeping than Obamacare. Among other things, it would have required employers to pay 65 percent of their employees' premiums. The government would cover everyone else.
He also conducted hand-shaking diplomacy — oh my gosh, the traitor! — with our two deadliest enemies at the time, the Soviet Union and China. On their home turfs.
The list goes on, but I'm afraid some gentle readers might suffer coronaries if they read much more.
Now, consider this: 40 years ago, Nixon was a staunch conservative, at least to my mind and to the minds, I think, of most Americans.
That was what a conservative Republican could look like then: pro-welfare, pro-environment, pro-worker, pro-diplomacy, pro-universal health coverage.
On some issues, Nixon would sit to the left of President Obama and the Democrats. The Republicans would have him whacked if he tried to use their name.
This clarified an issue that's bugged me for a while.
I've always described myself in this column as an incurable, unapologetic middle-of-the-roader. Because I truly believed that's who I was.
I cast my first vote for Gerald Ford, a Republican, against Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. Ford struck me as more moderate than Nixon, his predecessor, and Carter came across as too religious, which scared me.
For years afterward, in state and national contests alike, I voted about half-and-half for Democrats and Republicans — whoever in a given election seemed pragmatic and less of an ideologue.
I liked to consider myself intentionally, immovably an anti-extremist. Still do.
But for the last couple of decades, since Newt Gingrich rose to power, I've found myself pretty much voting straight Democratic tickets. And increasingly finding even the Democrats too conservative.
Like a lot of people, I don't much admire Obamacare. But the reason I don't like it is because to me — having been widowed, self-employed and scared to death, trying to find affordable health insurance that might protect me from bankruptcy if I got sick — the Affordable Care Act doesn't go nearly far enough.
Like good old Nixon, I favor mandatory universal health care, underwritten where necessary by the government.
Before I read up on Nixon, sometimes I'd tell my wife, "I don't know what's happening. The older I get, the more liberal I become."
It conflicted with my self-image of moderation.
Finally, I now know what was happening.
I really am a middle-of-the-roader — by the standards of orthodox 20th century politics. My political beliefs have hardly shifted an inch in 40 years.
But somebody built a whole new highway, about 200 miles to the right.
The road in whose middle I stand has been abandoned by both parties. Its shoulders are overgrown with weeds, its pavement chipped and its center line faded.
Nixon's now a Democrat. The Democrats are conservatives. The Republicans — well, they're trying to outshrug Atlas; they live where only the John Birch Society used to reside, railing against the Trilateral Commission and fluoride in the water.
And I, to my chagrin, without wanting or meaning to be, am ... a ... liberal. Me and Jerry Ford.
Pray for me, friends. Pray hard.