Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 2, 2011

Nixon, Churchill, Reason, and Drunk Drivers

By N.S. Palmer

He’s from the government and he’s here to help you.

Reason Magazine, a venerable libertarian publication, recently published a column arguing for the abolition of drunk-driving laws.

Back when I was a libertarian, I spent some time as a Research Fellow at the Reason Foundation in Santa Barbara, California, writing papers and giving seminars about abstruse philosophical topics such as the grue-bleen paradox and St. Augustine’s theory of knowledge. I also wrote an article for the magazine, in which (foolish youth that I was) I argued for abolishing all public education.

Reason was established back in 1968, when the pointless but profitable Vietnam War still dragged on (much like the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, which are equally pointless but even more profitable). President Johnson had decided not to run for re-election, and America was graced with Richard M. Nixon as its new president.

The similarities between that election and the election of 2000 are striking. In both cases, a generally right-thinking and competent but un-exciting Democrat (Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Al Gore in 2000) had served as vice president in the previous administration. A ruthless and somewhat amoral Republican (Richard Nixon in 1968, George Bush in 2000) was able to win by tarring his opponent with the real and imagined sins of the previous administration.

Now, I have a confession. As bad as he was in many ways, I’ve always had a soft spot for Nixon. As far as I can tell, Humphrey was a perfectly nice man whose heart was in the right place. Nixon was not a particularly nice man, even though he was a patriot and he did care about the United States.

In 1960, when he ran for President and lost to John F. Kennedy in a close vote marred by allegations of fraud, Nixon did the same thing as Al Gore did in 2000. Rather than challenge the election and besmirch the legitimacy of the U.S. government, Nixon conceded the presidency to Kennedy. Nixon was a proud man of humble birth, and conceding a tainted election to the patrician Kennedy must have been one of the hardest things he ever did.

And Nixon was one thing Humphrey wasn’t: he was brilliant. He knew the issues inside and out, not just tactically but in terms of history, philosophy, and geopolitical strategy. Unlike most politicians, he wrote his own books instead of using ghostwriters.* He wrote out the manuscripts in longhand on yellow legal pads. I’ve read some of those books. Their intelligence, learning, and insight rival those of Winston Churchill, who was also brilliant and had shortcomings, though he sometimes used ghostwriters.

I never met Nixon, though I did correspond with him once in an attempt to get him to write something for a book; he ultimately turned me down. Friends of mine who knew Nixon personally confirmed what I had inferred from his writing and his behavior: He had a mind like a computer but not much of a conscience.

I’d like to focus on that last qualifier: “not much of a conscience.” Nixon might not have had much of a conscience, but unlike some of our more recent politicians, he did have one. In a sense, he was an extreme version of all of us: he would do wrong sometimes, but then he would feel guilty about it. It’s his feeling of guilt that, in my eyes, redeems Nixon morally. He was a flawed man trying to do his best and often failing at it.

Most people have heard about the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation as president. What most people don’t know is that it was indeed about a “third-rate burglary” that Nixon didn’t authorize, though he probably wouldn’t have disapproved either.

Nixon lied to Congress and to the American people not to cover up his own crimes, but to protect some of the people who worked for him. The lies and coverup brought down his presidency. At that time, it was unimaginable to most people that their president would lie to them. Even comic-book heroes shared that belief. In an early 1960s comic strip, President Kennedy impersonated Clark Kent to help Superman protect his secret identity. Echoing the sentiments of most Americans, Superman said “If I can’t trust the President of the United States, then who can I trust?”

Today, of course, we have lower expectations. President Bush and Vice President Cheney lied to Americans and to Congress about WMDs, illegal wiretapping, and torture, but no one is surprised.

In any event, those were heady days for Reason Magazine and for libertarian true believers. The conceit behind the name of the magazine was the idea that only one political philosophy was rational and correct: libertarianism, in its mainstream or its Ayn Rand variant. Libertarians believed that their viewpoint was so clear and obvious, just like 2+2 = 4, that anyone who knew about it had to realize its truth. The only reasons why someone wouldn’t believe in it were that:

  • They hadn’t heard about it (no one had preached the Gospel to them);
  • They were stupid and unable to understand it;
  • They were mentally ill;

or, and this was the favorite explanation,

  • They were just plain evil and deliberately denied what they knew was the truth.

That attitude has interesting parallels with the attitude held about non-believers by some Christians. But I’ve gone far afield from my initial topic of drunk driving.

I agree with the Reason article that the main impetus behind drunk driving laws is “to punish sin,” as well as to give police and court officials an excuse to disrupt people’s lives for their own sadistic enjoyment. However, the issue is not as simple as one side being “right” and the other side being “wrong.”

Drunk driving laws, to the extent that they have any rational justification, are about risk. A drunk person is more likely to cause an accident than a sober one. The argument is that we cannot allow that risk. Of course, anti-drunk-driving fanatics exaggerate the size of the risk, but that is not the main point. Any society will legally prohibit some risks and not others.

For example, if I point a gun at you but do not fire it, then you have not been injured but you are at risk of being injured. For that reason, it’s illegal for me to point a gun at you. Technically, it’s a case of assault, but without battery because I didn’t fire.

It comes down to where we draw the line: how much risk is too much? That’s a value judgment that we should collectively make as a society and embody in law. Fifty years ago, it was illegal to drive drunk but it wasn’t considered a hanging offense. You could also drive with kids in the front seat and ride bikes without a helmet. You could get on a plane without being harassed by security guards, and the flight attendant would cheerfully stow your gun in the overhead compartment. People survived. They had a few more risks but they had greater freedom. Were they right? They thought so.

Our latter-day Carrie Nations seem to be obsessed with scourging “DDs:” Drunk Drivers. Drug Dealers. Deadbeat Dads. But their main phobia is risk: risk of any kind and of any magnitude, however small. We should not let them and their obsession with total safety stampede us into a totalitarian society.

  • A reader kindly pointed out that Nixon did use two ghostwriters (Frank Gannon and Dianne Sawyer) for his memoirs, but it was a departure from his usual practice.

Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Interesting post — I think it reveals more about your history and biases than about your stance on drunk driving laws, although you do make that stance clear.

    I do wish, as a nation, we would come to grips with the risk inherent in life. Bad things sometimes happen. We can’t legislate risks away; as we try, we end up with a snarl of laws that cause us to worry about every step. (From this perspective, more and more the way people in the US worry about missteps reminds me a bit of how people seemed to be in East Germany when I was there in 1984.) We can’t exact meaningful revenge or closure or justice by harshly punishing people for making stupid mistakes.

    However, I’m not opposed to there being legal consequences to driving drunk. If I smash my car into someone else’s because I was momentarily distracted or something, it’s different from drowning my ability to think and react in alcohol and then smashing my car into someone else’s. But I think the rabidity with which drunk driving is approached now is out of hand.

    • It seems that we’re in agreement. The penalties for causing human or property damage while driving drunk should be very severe, but I think that the mere act of driving after having a couple of drinks should be a ticketable offense.

      However, it’s a judgment call. Different people and societies can make different, equally valid judgments about how much risk to tolerate.

      I hope that you didn’t find the article to be excessively about “me me me.” That wasn’t the goal, and I would be mortified if it sounded like that. It is a feuilleton, so it’s kind of a free-associative meditation about culture, history, and social issues of which I do have some first-hand knowledge. It was a popular form when I was a kid.

      • Scott, I was amused by the free-flowing nature of this post. I didn’t find it to be self-centered or -serving. I think it gives a glimpse into how you think, which is interesting.

  2. I think the reason that drunk driving laws are so strenuous now is precisely because they demonstrably were too lax in the past. I can faintly remember when the gregarious drunk was the stuff of comedic TV shows and daily strips. But I think the problem was that for a long time, driving drunk really wasn’t much more than a ticket offense, if that. But as the number of cars on the road exponentiated and the freeways got bigger and faster, stories where Otis was pulled over and just told by Sheriff Andy to drive careful on the way home, only to have Otis plow down Opie and Aunt Bea, just got too common to ignore or wave away as something sad but inevitable like polio in the summer. It was preventable: Andy just had to have the authority — legal and moral — to haul Otis out of the car BEFORE someone died or was crippled. If we think a guy is sad and hard-done by because he lost his license, imagine how much better off he is if that’s ALL he has to deal with… not the knowledge that someone — a stranger on his way home to his family, or a family member sitting with him in the car — is dead.

    I’m old enough to remember my dad picking me up after work, smelling of sweat and beer. Years later, when I was in my 20s, we talked about it. He said times were different then and no one made an issue of it, but that in retrospect, the idea that he used to drive his son around drunk was scarcely believable to him. Times changed between the mid-70s and the late 80s.

    I don’t think this kind of power is out of line in modern society. You’re still free to drink as much as you please. Just don’t get behind the wheel afterwards.

    • Hi, LP —

      You make good points. You would draw the line in a slightly different place than I would, but they’re both valid decisions.

      One good thing that anti-drunk-driving crusaders have done is to raise people’s awareness of the issue. Few parents today would drive their kids while intoxicated, though the question of what counts as intoxicated is another line-drawing exercise. Thoughtful people know, however, that if they drink or do drugs, they become less able to judge their own driving ability.

      I would miss Opie, because he’s directed some great movies. But I never cared much for Aunt Bea. 🙂

  3. I’m with you on Nixon, Scott. For most of my life, I toed the line on the guy. He was pretty much written out of society. I remember Watergate going on when I was five or six; coming home from school to my babysitter’s, where she was watching the hearing like a soap opera. You didn’t have to be American for this to be high theatre. It was kind of slow motion Shakespeare.

    In more recent years, my view of Nixon has softened somewhat. Yes, I still feel he deserved impeachment, though deep in my heart, I suspect nearly everyone who ever held high office anywhere crossed or skated that line at some point; most get away with it. Nixon didn’t. I’ve come to see Tricky Dick as a truly tragic figure… I think he was a man who really wanted to be a better man than he was, aimed for it, but in the end just didn’t have the chops or the instincts to pull it off. Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind; if Bill Shakespeare were still with us, the Globe Theatre would have been presenting Richard IV in the late 70s.

    [Enter John Dean]

    John Dean: Hey nonny, my liege. Forsooth; a cancer growest upon thine imperium. What would thy pleasure be?

    Richard IV: Hence thyself; tell Liddy [expletive expletive expletive] money [expletive expletive] idiots. [Expletive!]

    John Dean: My Lord. [Exit.]

    • Hi, LP —

      LOL! You do great Shakespearean dialogue.

      And I think you hit on what makes Nixon a sympathetic character: “he was a man who really wanted to be a better man than he was.” That’s true of most of us. We see our own sins and defects of character, and they afflict us. We strive to do better, but we still fall short. Nixon was a larger-than-life version of the drama through which most of us suffer.

  4. Excellent post. But just a slight correction. Nixon did use two ghostwriters, Frank Gannon and Dianne Sawyer, for his memoirs. That doesn’t detract from his brilliance. Anyone who thinks he’s too smart for an editor or co-author needs only to read Ayn Rand to be disabused of this flight of fancy.

    • Thank you, John! Like you, I suspect, I welcome corrections! 🙂

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