I write quickly and am rarely wanting for words. All week, though, I have been stymied with respect to August 9, 2014, the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation. I mentioned my dilemma—what should I write?—to Ms. J. “May he rest in peace,” she offered. Not too helpful, for I am writing about someone whose positive attributes are, well, “not so much!” (I’m sure the comment tempered me a bit, though!)
Here are the basics:
Richard Nixon was born in 1913. He died in 1994. He graduated from Whittier College and Duke University School of Law. He served in the Navy in World War II. He was elected to Congress in 1946, the U.S. Senate in 1950, and became Vice President of the United States in 1952 (at age 39). He served as Vice President for eight years, and was the Republican Party nominee for President in 1960. He lost the election to Senator John F. Kennedy.
In 1968 Mr. Nixon ran again, won the election, and won re-election in 1972. He resigned—the only American president who ever has—on August 9, 1974, to avoid almost certain impeachment, conviction, and forced removal from office.
No doubt, Richard Nixon had a difficult psychological profile. Biographies give you the basics in the first chapter or two. Unsuccessful, struggling father, domineering mother, two (of four) brothers dead before he was 20, poor family, etc. Odd guy, too, with no social graces or ability to connect with people. This man had much in his past to explain how he related to others, the outrageous actions, the seemingly boundless paranoia, and the inability to tell the truth.
Of course, we elected him! Now, he was elected three times in California, and we’ll have to leave those elections to historians. (See the bibliography at the end of this post.) The Veep successes were on tickets with General/President Dwight Eisenhower, a “can’t lose” candidate. And maybe Vice President Nixon really won in 1960. Less likely than it is that Vice President Al Gore won the 2000 election, but who knows, and it was certainly a close election with plenty of evidence of cheating on both sides.
Alas, Richard Nixon won the elections in 1968 and 1972, despite our knowing an awful lot about the man, and despite the fact that he ran against two extraordinarily decent human beings, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator George McGovern (who always said hello to me and asked after me in the elevator in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in 1980.) President Nixon clearly cheated in 1972, but it’s hard for even me, who will be a George McGovern admirer until I pass on, to suggest that the cheating mattered one bit!
So, about 450 words later, what do I say? Well, I thought I’d be torn, but I’m not!
I’ve known people whose sons, siblings, spouses, and friends died in Vietnam on account of this man. There was no justification for carrying on the Vietnam War after January 1969. None! That President Lyndon Johnson got us to where we were by October 31, 1968, when Mr. Nixon announced his “secret plan,” is no excuse either, and by making these comments I offer no excuse for President Johnson. It’s not OK to send people to their deaths for no good reason. Not ever!!! And the history demonstrates clearly that by the mid-1960s those “in the know” knew Vietnam was a sinkhole not worth another life or another dime.
Richard Nixon also destroyed lives with his Red-baiting. Not so many, and getting elevated to the Vice Presidency and having Senator Joseph McCarthy (R.-Wis.) come along helped limit the damage he caused directly, but there are people whose lives Richard Nixon ruined in furtherance of his ambitions.
Watergate was an abomination! No one has ever proved with certainty that President Nixon knew about the break-in before it occurred, but the man was a control freak extraordinaire. And he didn’t know beforehand? Really? My blood damn near boils when I hear ahistorical people claim this or that incident was “worse than Watergate.” These people are young, on someone’s payroll, or both, for Watergate was a simply unimaginable revue of wrongful conduct by the leader of the free world, and those who were paid to do his bidding! There has been nothing else like it, ever!!!
There’s more! President Nixon’s Southern Strategy took advantage of the civil rights bills of the mid-1960s, turning the South into a Republican Party stronghold. This from a man whose prior years reflected the moderate Republican view that the time for Negro rights had come, a while ago. (Politics justifies much, for sure, but the Southern Strategy explains much about our present divide.)
But wait; there’s still more!!! President Nixon used the people who opposed the war in Vietnam—young, loud, unkempt, and too often in need of a shower, but sincere in their belief that America was following the wrong path—to build his Silent Majority, the people who, in their day, “worked hard and played by the rules.” President Nixon adopted them, validated them, and turned them against people who, because they opposed the war and didn’t do it politely, were the “other.”
I thought I’d be torn because of the Clean Air Act. The EPA. The Legal Services Corporation. The Clean Water Act, passed by overriding President Nixon’s veto, although he mostly supported the bill. Having Daniel Patrick Moynihan working in the White House. Détente with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and a rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China. The fact that the man was serious and smart and knew how to govern.
Well, sadly, the good barely moves the scales at all for me. President Richard Nixon was one bad guy, however sad his beginnings, however much he sincerely believed he was doing right by his country, and taking into account fully his significant and lasting accomplishments. I hope and pray that we never elect the likes of him again!
Here’s a brief and totally incomplete bibliography. I have not listened to any significant part of the David Frost interviews, and did not read President Nixon’s memoir. The Perlstein book is in the queue; I just started re-reading Before the Storm about the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, and plan to re-read Nixonland before I read Mr. Perlstein’s newest book, The Invisible Bridge. The Wicker and Reeves books are also great.
Frost/Nixon, the David Frost interviews of then former President Richard Nixon
Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
One of Us by Tom Wicker
President Nixon by Richard Reeves
RN by Richard Nixon
Finally, at least for me, August 8, 1974 was the big day, when President Nixon gave his resignation speech. I recall being in the throws of going away to college in a couple of weeks. Knowing Nixon was gone was happy news! And because August 8 was the big day for me, this post goes up on the evening of August 7, and will likely take us through late Saturday or early Sunday. Enjoy the rest of the week!