COLUMN

The real legacy of Richard Nixon

Success in foreign affairs and the occasional domestic policy initiative do not redeem high-level mischief

FRED BRUNING May 23 1994
COLUMN

The real legacy of Richard Nixon

Success in foreign affairs and the occasional domestic policy initiative do not redeem high-level mischief

FRED BRUNING May 23 1994

The real legacy of Richard Nixon

COLUMN

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Success in foreign affairs and the occasional domestic policy initiative do not redeem high-level mischief

FRED BRUNING

In what may have been the defining moment of his career, Richard Nixon told reporters after a failed 1962 California gubernatorial campaign that he was through with politics. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference,” he said.

Naturally, Nixon didn’t mean it and henceforth would be remembered as the guy who promised to get lost but didn’t. Two years earlier, he nearly beat Jack Kennedy in a race for the presidency, but Nixon was not the sort of fellow to let well enough alone. In 1968, there he was again—this time to battle poor Hubert Humphrey for the White House. The man who said he was choosing early retirement won the election and taught the nation a fundamental lesson: Dick Nixon always had a little something working on the side.

It was appropriate that Nixon’s death last month at age 81 stirred anew the kind of selfconscious debate characteristic of the American dialogue. Just as Nixon demonstrated that he had a certain capacity for improvisation, the nation he left behind also thrives on flux and flummox. Accordingly, many said Nixon was a great man, sorely misunderstood. Detractors thundered that Nixon was a shrewd operator who abused power and compromised the constitution.

Over in a comer, the fourth estate worried that it had afforded Nixon an excess of posthumous respect. And indeed there had been a number of enthusiastic newspaper pieces cheering Nixonian foreign policy triumphs in Beijing and Moscow (Vietnam was another matter, of course) and relegating Watergate to secondary status. Exasperated, Russell Baker of The New York Times charged that the media’s “dreadful reputation for bestiality is mostly a fraud” and complained further that by treating Nixon so generously, editors “seemed engaged in a group conspiracy to grant him absolution.”

Fred Burning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

Absolution? Deification was more like it in some cases. Even President Clinton got swept away by the mood. At memorial services in Yorba Linda, Calif., Clinton urged Americans to judge Nixon with kindness and on nothing “less than his entire life.” Clinton must now only faintly recall his days as a peace protester, and perhaps likewise has forgotten the more than 27,000 American GIs who perished in Vietnam during the Nixon years. Or maybe Richard Nixon cast a spell on Bill Clinton, as was the older man’s talent. People joked they wouldn’t buy a used car from a fellow like Nixon, after all, and then elected him president. Americans are an uncommonly erratic bunch, and Nixon was a politician well suited to our metaphysical needs—a man in whom we saw ourselves, the shady and sublime.

From the outset of his political journey, Nixon had appeared a melancholy and mysterious fellow. Depending on their political persuasion, Americans took these characteristics as signs of his deep and introspective nature, or as warning that the man was dangerous. As a public figure, Nixon demanded constant monitoring and psychological interpretation. He rarely seemed to say what he meant or do what he intended.

If Dick Nixon claimed he had a secret plan to end the Indochina war, it could safely be assumed he already was reloading the B-52s and speeding them towards Hanoi. Likewise, if he signalled conservatives that he would hold the line on social reform, he might one day propose a family assistance plan or back legislation authorizing billions to clean up the environment. He made his reputation as an implacable red-baiter but initiated historic overtures to the Soviet Union and China. That was the deal with Nixon. Even those who thought they knew him best didn’t know him at all.

In the end, Nixon’s fabled trickiness will serve as his bequest to American culture. Since the former president’s death, a few critics have scored Nixon for leading the American people towards cynicism, but that is a foolish analysis. Cynicism is the mulch of democracy, nurturing the organism and making it thrive. The vintage bumper sticker that urged us to “Question authority” was invaluable advice, even if simply stated. Only at our peril do we take the pronouncements of politicians at face value. Only if we care too little for the republic do we accept without doubt their smiles and handshakes and intonations of God Bless America.

Until Richard Nixon forced us to grow up, we were a gullible tribe. In the rough-andtough 19th century, Americans viewed their leaders with suitable skepticism, but the 20th century brought a giddy sense of wellbeing—at least for members of the great white middle-class. Manifest destiny was our common assumption. Then came Vietnam to smite us like some terrible oath never before uttered. Richard Nixon followed thereafter and before long, his grandest folly, Watergate.

Do not be snookered by revisionists. Watergate was no trifle. The episode that began with a break-in at Democratic headquarters on June 17, 1972, betrayed a vindictive and paranoid administration at work. Before the nasty affair was over, Americans learned that the White House interfered with government investigators and considered paying hush money to criminals. Nixon and his lieutenants tortured the truth, destroyed evidence, winked at perjury, wiretapped opponents and sought to punish their adversaries in a fashion considered excessive even by Washington standards. His misdeeds would have led to impeachment if Nixon hadn’t quit the presidency first.

And if his successor, Gerald Ford, hadn’t issued a pardon, Richard Nixon almost certainly would have faced criminal charges, too. Let’s be clear. There is no parity at hand, no rough moral equivalency. Success in foreign affairs and the occasional domestic policy initiative do not redeem high-level mischief. Nixon’s journey to respectability from disgrace was a wondrous feat of self-rehabilitation, but the man was still the man. We owe Richard Nixon gratitude for revealing the pitiless workings of power. Beyond a prayer and final farewell, we owe him not much more.