It’s been said that there is no greater bully pulpit than the American presidency. Linking the force of moral persuasion to this most powerful office—one that is capable of issuing executive orders and bypassing the wishes of Congress or rousing public opinion in favor of or against bills that are in the process of being crafted—many of its recent incumbents have seized upon this authority to declare a war on something.
These are not the usual proclamations that serve to mobilize and unite the nation in times of battle. No, these are the rallying calls, the pep talks used by the commander in chief to cajole the members of Congress and inspire the public to work diligently toward achieving some worthy goals.
For John F. Kennedy, this war was his call for an all-out technological effort to beat the Soviets in the race to the moon. For Lyndon Johnson, it was the war on poverty, a series of federal programs that sought to alter the bleak economic landscape that affected one-fifth of the population, which was mired in poverty during his presidency. For some presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, it has been the enduring war on drugs, focused on ending illicit drug use, a battle with mixed results that rages on.
And then there was one other skirmish started by a most unlikely White House incumbent, President Nixon. Entangled in a deeply unpopular war in Southeast Asia, President Nixon sought some dramatic initiative that could signify to voters that he was more than a warmonger, an appellation commonly affixed to his name.1 Six months before the infamous Watergate burglary, during his 1971 State of the Union address, he telegraphed his intentions to vanquish cancer when he pledged $100 million toward this battle. President Nixon declared, “I hope in the years ahead we will look back on this action today as the most significant action taken during my administration.”2
I will let others judge whether this laudable effort compensates for President Nixon’s policy blunders in Vietnam or his impeachable behavior during the Watergate scandal. Immediately after declaring this war, President Nixon—always the shrewd politician—ordered the conversion of the Army’s Fort Detrick, Md., biological warfare facility to a cancer research center, a biblical gesture. A depot of germ warfare was transformed into the Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center, an internationally recognized facility for cancer and AIDS research.1