Richard Nixon’s life was full of denial and contradiction
A modern Machiavelli
Richard Nixon’s life was full of denial and contradiction
If there is an afterlife lair for scheming political villains, for the Machiavellis, Rasputins and Stalins of history, then for a multitude of Americans that is where Richard Milhous Nixon belongs. For others, even the only U.S. president ever forced from office by his own corrupt behavior deserves a somewhat better place in posterity. But if there is any way beyond the grave for the man known as Tricky Dick to manipulate his record, as he tried for the last 20 years of his life, then Nixon could yet find his way into the Valhalla of history’s heroes. “I have never been a quitter,” Nixon declared before he quit the White House on Aug. 9,
1974. And fighting spirits, even among losers, are often as much admired in America as they are in the heaven of warriors.
Nixon lost the last fight of his 81 years on April 22 in east Manhattan’s New York Hospital. The 37th president (1969-1974) succumbed after struggling against the ravages of a stroke suffered on April 18 at his townhouse home in suburban Park Ridge, N.J.
Widowed last June when Pat Nixon died of lung cancer, his daughters, Tricia and Julie, were at his side.
Even before the ritual posthumous tributes arrived from around the world, news reports of the illness balanced approving reminders of Nixon’s life as a resolute fighter against the sordid corners of a career that scarred his country. The Washington Post, whose pursuit of a 1972 burglary story at the capital’s Watergate complex led to Nixon’s downfall, gave equal billing to his critics and his fans. “At almost every stage of his career,” asserted political writer David Broder, “there have been people who took deep offence at his actions, just as others admired him for the tenacity with which he sought his goals.”
Nixon’s pugnacious approach to politics began long before the two pre-election break-and-enters at the Democratic Party’s Watergate election headquarters. It persisted after Watergate engulfed him in revelations that ranged from profane diatribes (he once referred to Pierre Trudeau as an “asshole”), through anti-Semitic and racist remarks, to orders to get government agencies to dig up dirt on supposed opponents. He resigned to evade impeachment by Congress on charges that he obstructed justice, violated the constitutional rights of citizens and failed to obey a congressional order for documents. More than 30 associates went to jail, but he escaped prosecution when his successor, Gerald Ford, issued a presidential pardon the month after Nixon quit. It was an attempt to end what Ford described as “our long national nightmare.”
But it has been a recurring nightmare, with the periodic release of more secret tape recordings of damning conversations in the Nixon White House, despite efforts by the former president to suppress them. That was part of a long fight to establish himself as a statesman, and bolster his bank account, with a series of books, interviews,
foreign trips and advisory visits to the White House of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. He was ever ready with advice. In a 1988 book, the man who wrongly included Canada among countries contributing to a U.S. trade deficit in 1971, and whacked imports with a “Nixonomics” tax, decried Washington’s habit of ignoring Canada. Only a month before his stroke, he spent 10 days in Russia, provoking President Boris Yeltsin’s anger, and a snub, by meeting with opposition leaders.
Watergate? That, he insisted in a 1977 television session with British interviewer David Frost, was an issue only because he himself had “screwed up terribly in what was a little thing that became a big thing.” But he never would say he was sorry.
Denial and contradictions began early in Nixon’s career. He was born the son of Quakers on Jan. 9,1913, in the Los Angeles-area village of Yorba Linda (where Nixon had requested burial, eschewing the customary state funeral ceremony in Washington for ex-presidents). After earning a law degree, he served as a noncombat naval officer in the Second World War. But he learned about the benefits of ruthless political combat in his earliest electoral venture. According to his biographers, a burglary helped him unseat a Democrat
congressman in California in 1946: men hired by a theatrical agency handed out the Democrat’s stolen campaign literature, saying they were Russians who wanted Nixon’s opponent elected. Postwar anti-communist fever also served Nixon during four years in the House of Representatives, where he played a prominent role in flushing out “subversives” for the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was the Democrat he defeated in 1950 to win a Senate seat, Helen Gahagan Douglas, who pinned him with ‘Tricky Dick,” a label that stuck to him as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president for eight years from 1953, and throughout much of the rest of his life.
Trickery worked to dissuade Eisenhower from dropping him as a running mate in the 1952 election. Confronted with allegations of raising a secret slush fund from wealthy businessmen, Nixon deflected the issue in what became known as his Checkers speech on national TV. As if choked with emotion, he confessed to accepting a cocker spaniel named Checkers for his two daughters and then declared defiantly: “Regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep him.”
The Tricky Dick image pursued Nixon into his 1960 presidential
campaign. But it was his physical appearance—his 5-o’clock shadow gave Nixon a sinister look during a televised debate with the boyish John F. Kennedy—that pundits blamed in part for his narrow and embittering defeat. When he returned to the fray in 1968, Nixon managed to win an equally close verdict over liberal Hubert Humphrey and independent George Wallace on the right. He played both sides by promising to end the Vietnam War and to restore law and order.
Despite the worsening of those problems before the 1972 election, and the first stirrings of the Watergate scandal, Nixon crushed Democrat George McGovern, winning almost 62 per cent of the vote. He did so as a result of McGovern’s inept campaign, and by denying knowledge of the Watergate break-ins, arranging a halt in an FBI investigation of Watergate and capping it off with an election-eve promise of imminent peace in Vietnam.
Two more undeniable Nixon accomplishments, both earlier in 1972, seemed to have little impact on voters. One was his visit to China to lay the groundwork for renewing relations after 23 years of hostility. The other was arranging a détente with the Soviet Union. That May, he signed the first strategic arms limitation treaty in Moscow. Soon after the election, Watergate took charge of the U.S. political agenda.
In retrospect, the world can be grateful that Nixon, for all of his paranoid instability in the conduct of domestic politics, somehow invoked his pacifist birthright as the son of Quakers on the global stage. Ten years before Watergate, after losing the California governor’s race, Nixon bitterly attacked the press. “Gentlemen, just think what you’re going to be missing,” he said. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” It was not, of course. And even now, despite his leadership in launching a world at arms towards a saner path, his record as a modern Machiavelli ensures that historians, if not the press, are bound to be kicking Nixon around long after his death. □
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