Among the many remarkable presidents of the 20th Century, Richard Milhous Nixon remains the most fascinating and controversial. Nixon was a man of great vision who could have been a great president. He was a paradox - a political phenomenon and a man uneasy with public life. Whether one loved him or hated him, he elicited great emotion in everyone around him.
Nixon was intelligent, creative, decisive, bold, and knowledgeable on all things political. He was also physically awkward and sensitive almost to the point of paranoia. "Tricky Dick" was the man liberals loved to hate. To conservatives, he was a hero.
He was always the determined fighter no matter what the circumstances. Nixon was at his best when he was tested and under fire. He reveled in the challenge. His political rise gave premonition to his fall.
The Rise of a Politician
Nixon started his political career as a member of Congress after WWII. He was a dedicated anti-Communist -- the man who put away Alger Hiss. The Hiss case capitulated him over Hollywood backed Helen Gahagan Douglas to the Senate in 1950, and at the age of 39 -- to the vice presidency. In 1960 however, he watched JFK, an opponent more ruthless than he, steal the presidency away with the graveyard vote in Cook County.
By 1968, America was in the crosswinds of great change. The nation was in the midst of its greatest domestic strife since the Civil War. Political assassinations, burning cities, race riots, and campus revolts rocked the nation. In Vietnam, we were losing 200 to 300 soldiers a week with no end is sight. Against such turmoil, Nixon ascended to the presidency and tried to govern.
Nixon had a great sense of strategy. He knew where he wanted to position himself on the spectrum of issues. He had a well-articulated sense of what the American public wanted. In spite of a hostile press, the "great silent majority" of Americans backed him for earnestly trying to repair the damage created in Vietnam, and with domestic disorder. Most people admired his grit and determination, and understood his anxiety at trying to stop those who were tearing the country apart.
Fearful of each other, both China and the Soviet Union were willing to ease relations with the US. Nixon brilliantly advanced America's strategic position in the world by triangulating Strategic Arms Limitation Talks the Soviets, and the opening of diplomatic relations with the Chinese. Nixon's opening to China remains the crowing achievement of his presidency.
After a series of top-secret leaks to the press, one even being the US fallback position to the SALT talks, Nixon became consumed, even paranoid, about the constant threat of confidential information being made public and blowing his negations with Moscow, Peking and Hanoi. Out of this anxiety, the "Plumbers" were born and the road to Watergate began.
Meanwhile, Nixon was pursing Paris peace talks with North Vietnam, while methodically withdrawing US troops and escalating South Vietnam's role in the war through the Vietnamization program. Ever more virulent antiwar protests encouraged Hanoi to hold out, but after Nixon's landslide reelection and Christmas bombing campaign, Hanoi finally settled at the peace table in January 1973. US troops and the POWs were soon home, and Nixon's popularity was at its highest just as Watergate began to unfold.
At the time, most people were disappointed, even heartbroken, at Nixon's failure to manage the crisis properly. Even today, the Watergate saga is incredibly complex to dissect and analyze. Conspiracy theorists still believe, with some validity, that Watergate was a slow motion coup d'etat.
But in his 1990 book, In the Arena, Nixon admitted his responsibility for the cover-up. He claimed he did not give the matter sufficient attention because he was preoccupied with his China initiatives and his efforts to end the war in Vietnam. He blamed no one but himself for Watergate.
While Nixon knew nothing of the break-in at the time it occurred, when he learned the full extent of his administration's involvement with the scandal in March 1973, his hesitation to decisively cleanse the White House of those committed crimes, he became entangled in a cover-up that would destroy his presidency. Had he come clean at this time, the public probably would have forgiven him and much anguish would have been avoided.
"I should have established a moral tone that would have made such actions unthinkable. I did not. I played by the rules of politics as I found them. Not taking a higher road than my predecessors and my adversaries was my central mistake."
Watergate soon became the perfect storm of payback in the game of political hardball. Nixon reflected,
"The baseless and highly sensationalistic charges, the blatant double standards, the party-line votes in congressional investigating committees, and the unwillingness of my adversaries and the media to look into parallel wrongdoing within Democratic campaigns, all should tip off even the casual observer that the opposition was pursuing not only justice but also political advantage."
The overflow of accusations against him, true and false, exaggerated the public outrage over what actually occurred. Nixon lost his ability to govern, and even supporters came to believe he had to go.
Richard Nixon was wrong for his role in Watergate, but the end of his presidency was not worth what followed. Nixon may have suffered dreadfully from Watergate, but the aftershocks cannot be all blamed on him. After he fell, the worst tendencies of liberalism were unleashed.
The savagery on Nixon in the media, and their euphoria at his fall removed any pretense of objectivity. Their claims to have been neutral, fair and objective were seen by everyone for the farce that they were. Cynicism and mistrust for the government, and for the media, are legacies of Watergate.
It is interesting how the media yawned through eight years of scandal by the Clinton Administration. Clinton's crimes were far more numerous and severe than those of Nixon, but Nixon took the fall and Clinton did not. Perhaps Nixon was correct that when it comes to uncovering scandal about a president, the press is interested in Republicans, not Democrats.
Leaks of confidential and even classified information continue to be a problem to this day. Like Nixon's leak problem, there are no easy solutions. Perhaps it takes a well-publicized prosecution of the most egregious offenders. A win in court is never assured, and it may be pyrrhic at best. In a courtroom, it can be expected that even more secrets would be exposed. The Plame - Libby case is an example of just how perversely the press and the courts continue to treat issues of national security.
Following Watergate came relentless investigations and restrictions on the FBI, the CIA, and other national security and investigative agencies. Intelligence breakdowns have continued to hamper us since that time. The failure to uncover the 9/11 conspiracy, for example, had its genesis in the Church Committee following Watergate that reduced our ability to gather human intelligence.
The collapse of the Nixon presidency also brought on greater Soviet aggression around the globe. Between 1974 and 1980, the Soviets and their client armies seized control of more than a dozen countries, killing or oppressing millions of people.
The day Nixon left office, South Vietnam was successfully defending itself. Nixon's Vietnamization policy was effective at promoting a strong Asian self-defense backed by US air power. Nixon was determined to deliver "peace with honor" in Vietnam, and in 1973 he did so. His political opponents were equally determined to throw it all away, and in the end, they did so too.
Democrats won huge in the elections of 1974, and one of their first acts in 1975 was to cut military aid to Saigon. Not surprisingly, the North Vietnamese Army saw their opportunity and overran South Vietnam a few months later. The air power Nixon promised if Hanoi violated the Paris peace accords went unused.
When Nixon went down, the hopes and efforts of all the military personnel who fought and died in Southeast Asia effectively went down with him. The consequences were catastrophic for US foreign policy, not to mention the peoples of Southeast Asia. The credibility of our commitments worldwide has been called into question ever since.
The North Vietnamese interned more than a million of our former allies into "reeducation" camps where many of them died. Two million refugee boat people fled from the North Vietnamese with an estimated quarter-million of them perishing at sea. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge murdered as many as two million people as well.
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Following a self-imposed exile, Richard Nixon returned to the public view in 1977 with his famous David Frost interviews. His many books and consultations with presidents and world leaders in the years that followed gave the former president a forum to share his extensive knowledge and insights. His post-presidency years were, in many ways, where he found his peace, redeemed himself, and secured his legacy.
Jeff Lukens can be contacted here.