DEATH BEFORE DISHONOUR
In exile, Richard Nixon gambled all he had lefthis life-and he won
Aug. 9,1974, RichardNixon, caught in the ever-tightening noose of Watergate, resigned the presidency of the United States. He seemed destined for a future of permanent disgrace. Instead, as this excerpt from Conrad Black’s biography The Invincible Quest (McClelland & Stewart) details, Nixon immediately began to plan what Black calls “the transfiguration,” his transformation from reviled ex-president to respected elder statesman:
Richard Nixon stayed in his California house for some days, virtually in seclusion. He asked Alexander Haig to send all his voluminous papers and tapes to San Clemente. This was the custom; presidents were traditionally entitled to their papers, and none of the materials he was asking for were under subpoena. Some cartons of documents that had been packed up under the supervision of Rose Mary Woods had accompanied him on the airplane to San Clemente, and as much as a hundred tons of papers followed, until press questions and Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s expression of interest caused new President Gerald Ford to impose a stop and await a determination of rightful ownership of Nixon’s papers.
The ex-president was at first in a state of shock, which soon gave way to inert, almost catatonic, sadness. Nixon had other prob-
lems; he had almost no money, as his liquid resources were going to pay back taxes (which he had been unfairly assessed). And there was the open question of his legal status. Polls indicated that a majority of Americans wanted Nixon indicted and tried, such was the public anger at his alleged abuse of his office.
Despite his dignified exit, the moral outrage of the country was just reaching its crest. The House Judiciary Committee reported out on August 22 and accused Nixon, on the basis of what it called “clear and convincing evidence,” of 36 different instances of obstruction of justice. This was majority counsel John Doar’s wild exaggeration, which the Republicans on the committee had no interest in contesting at this point, 10 weeks from an election. The report was adopted by the whole House by the astounding vote of 412 to 3. There was evidence of Nixon’s obstruction of justice, and it was, of course, a very shabby and in some respects disgraceful record, but there was not “clear and convincing” evidence of the probative value a court is supposed to require, of anything like 36 offenses.
Before leaving office, Nixon had jauntily said he would take his chances in court. That did not now seem so appetizing, and his physical and mental health were not robust. Nixon called Senator James Eastland about two weeks after leaving Washington, and Eastland reported to Jaworski that the ex-president was “in bad shape.” At Ford’s first presidential press conference, on August 28, there was a question about a possible pardon of Nixon, which Ford parried. The press took this to mean that Ford would pardon Nixon after a trial but not before. Despite the orgy of Watergate righteousness, there didn’t seem
to be many people who actually thought Nixon should be incarcerated, even if he could be convicted.
On August 29, the flamboyant literary agent Irving Paul “Swifty” Lazar met with Nixon and agreed to represent him in seeking a book contract. He thought he could get $2 million from a publisher as an advance. When he returned to Los Angeles, Lazar was asked fantastic questions by the press about whether Nixon had let his hair grow to his shoulders, had elongated fingernails like Howard Hughes, and was unshaven, disheveled, and incoherent. Lazar dismissed the questions with great aplomb. (If Nixon’s hair had grown to his shoulders in three weeks, it would have been an astonishing physical achievement.)
Ford told his counsel, Philip Buchen, to tell Nixon’s new lawyer, Herbert Miller, that he was considering a pardon, but that he wanted a statement from Nixon that would be an act of contrition. A lawyer who had been on Ford’s vice-presidential staff, Benton Becker, and Nixon aide Ron Ziegler tried to work out a statement Nixon would be prepared to make following a pardon. There were four drafts, mainly composed by Nixon, who refused to acknowledge any guilt, but was prepared to express some remorse. Throughout this process, Nixon remained in his spare little office and Ziegler shuttled between rooms.
Becker finally requested to see Nixon, so he could report to Ford on his condition. He found the ex-president shockingly diminished in the month since he had left Washington. He was jowly, pallid, almost shrunken, and had a limp handshake and a distracted man-
ner. Becker reported to Ford that Nixon was severely depressed and he doubted if he would live more than another couple of months.
On Sunday, September 8, Ford went on television and radio, explained that he wished to put Watergate behind the country and the terrible divisions it had created, and read his proclamation of a “full, free, and absolute pardon” for Nixon. In San Clemente, Ziegler released Nixon’s agreed statement: “I was wrong in not acting more decisively and forthrightly in dealing with Watergate____No words
can describe the depths of my regret and pain at the anguish my mistakes over Watergate have caused the nation and the presidency, a nation I so deeply love and an institution I so greatly respect.” He hoped that Ford’s “compassionate act” would ease “the burden of Watergate.” He was aware that some thought he had committed illegalities, and that his “mistakes and misjudgments” might seem to confirm that, and mishandling Watergate was a “burden I shall bear every day of the life that is left to me.”
The state of opinion was so febrile that Ford’s popularity dipped in a month from his honeymoon 70 per cent to about 50 per cent. The country was not impressed with Nixon’s statement either. So convinced was the public of Nixon’s guilt, it was outraged that he had confessed no guilt. He felt none, and would not, even if he went bankrupt, was indicted, and died, confess any. Both presidents behaved with some distinction. Ford did the decent and compassionate thing, and also the right thing for the country. Nixon had paid a terrible price for his mistake or offense; trying him a year or two later, or holding that prospect over him all that time,
would either kill the ex-president or lead to a very divisive trial. Once hysterical emotionalism had subsided, it is still not clear that he would have been convicted if he received a fair hearing. If he had been acquitted, the backbiting in the country would rise and crest again. If he were convicted, nothing useful would be accomplished.
Nixon, despite his very debilitated condition, clung to principle, and preserved the integrality of his comeback argument: as he said on leaving office, he had made mistakes. That meant, as he confirmed in his pardon statement, that he admitted no illegalities. The spark of doubt about Nixon’s guilt, and therefore the whole question of the treatment he had received at the hands of the media, the Congress, and the courts, had survived. Now Nixon would slowly fan and coax the spark into a fire.
In fact, though exhausted, Nixon had, by a final, almost Kiplingesque triumph of “heart and nerve and sinew,” saved inviolate his ability to deny wrongdoing. And he had spared himself an unsustainable ordeal. That he managed, sitting in a barewalled little cubicle in California, depressed and ill and disgraced and abandoned by most of the prominent people who had long courted and attended upon him, to face down the demand for a confession by implicitly stating that he would prefer to die, was a remarkable achievement. Many people in Ford’s position might have accepted that choice. That Ford did not was a great credit to the human decency of the new president, a quality that Nixon had rarely seen for many months. It was also, imperceptibly at first, the signal that finally, Nixon’s luck had turned.
He had had no means to resist the demand for a confession except his preference for death before complete dishonor. And as Becker reported to Ford, he would almost certainly have died; he was dying, if he was pursued any more by his enemies. He had been forced to the final extremity of the warrior and the victim, death or moral self-destruction. In choosing death, he put himself in the hands of an unusually compassionate man
for a long-serving veteran of American national politics. Ford was accused and suspected of consummating a deal with Nixon, the vicepresidency for a pardon. This is a canard. Nixon was pressed to the limits of endurance, and Ford, on hearing Becker’s report of his predecessor’s condition, did what was in every respect except short-term personal political expediency, right. Nixon had gam-
Nixon was, for better and worse, the personification of a large section of the American people, and they never forgot it
bled all he had left—his life—and that he won, he soon saw as a turning point.
He told the author, 18 years later, that he had felt as Franklin D. Roosevelt had when his polio started to immobilize his hands (before it receded and he recovered full control of his hands and bowels), that he was being forsaken by God. He would be reassured that this was not the case, but not until a direct, physical crisis of life and death had been met. On the evening of September 8, the day of the pardon, Nixon was seized by a pain in his lower left abdomen, and his left leg had swollen to nearly three times its normal size. His doctor, John Lungren, was called, and he urged Nixon to go to a hospital at once to deal with what he thought was a dangerous embolism. Nixon unconditionally refused.
Lungren gave him a massive prescription, applied a support to the leg, and told him to keep his leg up and not to put any weight on
it. After three days, his sons-in-law, presumably with the approval of their wives, told the media that Nixon was unwell. The media had generally assumed that he would be celebrating his pardon, and Ed Cox and David Eisenhower set the minds of the press straight on that score.
The ex-president’s inner circle seemed to think they were doing Nixon a favor by spreading indiscretions in the press about his physical and psychiatric condition. The apparent objective was to damp down press hostility to the pardon and cool out the ambitions of litigants and the courts to drag Nixon into court as a witness. Jaworski subpoenaed Nixon for the Ehrlichman-Haldeman-Mitchell trial, as had Ehrlichman, and Nixon had received subpoenas in civil cases as well. Justice John Sirica, although he had granted a three-week delay in the main Watergate trial after the commotion over Nixon’s pardon, declared from the bench that he expected Nixon to respond to the subpoena. Nixon had no intention of doing anything of the kind, no matter what the state of his health.
There was the usual psycho-media speculation that Nixon was attempting a novel form of suicide, generally communicated in a neutral way, effectively confirming that if Nixon had any excuse for his nefarious conduct, it was mental instability, if not insanity. Nixon’s state of mind was not at all unstable, though it was generally depressed. Kenneth Clawson, White House communications director, came to visit Nixon a few days later, and Nixon gave him his familiar theory that he was chased out by the establishment soft left in the media and the Washington establishment, who realized that Nixon posed a mortal threat to their continued domination of national affairs. In his own mind he was always an outsider and a victim. He reminisced about how he had steeled himself to
endure terrible punishment as a rather inept athlete, and declared that he would not leave his house, no matter what happened to his leg, even if the blood clot were to “reach the end zone.” Then he gave his Kipling address: “You’ve got to be tough. You can’t break even when there is nothing left. You can’t admit, even to yourself, that it is gone.” These were partial quotes from Kipling’s “If.” He would not “stand in the middle of the bullring and cry mea culpa... while the crowd is hissing and booing and spitting on [him].”
Lungren was back at Nixon’s house on September 16 and discovered serious deterioration. Nixon’s leg was so swollen he had trouble putting on his trousers. Lungren explicitly stated that if he did not go to the hospital, he would die. Nixon relented and went to Lungren’s Long Beach Memorial Hospital, where it was discovered that a clot from his leg had fragmented and part had gone to his lung. Nixon remained in hospital until October 4When he left, Lungren told the press that he would have to have at least a month of completely relaxed recuperation, and three months after that of avoiding any prolonged period of sitting or standing. Going to Washington was out of the question, and he could not even sit at home for a deposition for at least three weeks. Swifty Lazar had sold Nixon’s book to Warner for $2.5 million. The advocates of an imminent Nixon suicide quickly complained that he was faking an illness to dodge testimony, and that it was indecent
for him to be making millions while his aides were on trial for their liberty. Few of them seemed to be able to recall that Richard Nixon’s memoirs would encompass more than Watergate.
The press finally got a look at Nixon as he was wheeled out of the hospital in Long Beach on October 4He was thin, jowly, and aged, and his clothes hung on him precariously, but he claimed that he felt “great.” The day of his release, the Senate, by a vote of 56 to 7, purported to instruct the president to retain control of all Nixon’s papers and tapes, abrogating the agreement Ford’s and Nixon’s lawyers had worked out. The Senate thus began a long legal battle that Nixon would finally, after many years, win decisively, in one of the great moral victories of his life.
Nixon convalesced, while Pat gardened energetically at La Casa Pacifica. Sirica released the pre-trial filings of Ehrlichman and Haldeman. They had turned completely on Nixon and alleged a series of “unrecorded” meetings and telephone conversations with the former president, which, if they had been recorded, would miraculously clear them and make it clear that Nixon was the author personally of every bit of skullduggery that the prosecutors might mistakenly imagine had anything to do with these defendants. The American prosecutorial system encourages a system of suborned or intimidated perjury, or at least spontaneous clarity of recollection, to move upwards in the inculpation of offi-
cials in any organization where wrongdoing is alleged. Plea bargains are negotiated by threat and financial strangulation and reduction of penalties, as lower echelons roll over in sequence blaming higher-ups.
It is a questionable system, which led decades later to the installation of the “whistleblower”—i.e., the squealer—as one of the central figures in American commerce. This process is topped out with the “allocution,” as the plea-bargainer denounces himself like the tortured victim of Stalin’s show trials. Since the purpose of the plea bargain, for the confessant, is to reduce his sentence, the United States at least avoids the splendid Stalinist flourish of the accused demanding the swiftest possible imposition of the death penalty on himself as a minimum punishment for the abominable crimes of these almost always innocent (at least of what they were admitting) people.
It was a contemptible spectacle as Ehrlichman, who had cheerfully authorized the break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst, as long as “it is not traceable,” as if that made it less criminal; and as Haldeman, who had told Nixon they were “beautifully” placed to urge the CIA to shut down the FBI Watergate investigation, dumped everything in Nixon’s lap.
Nixon had wept when they left him at Camp David in April 1973, and said that it was like cutting his own arms off to part with them, and told the country they were “great
Americans.” One expects from the former leaders of the White House staff a higher standard of probity than to invent conversations and falsely accuse their president of matters in which there was almost no possibility of his involvement. Ehrlichman and Haldeman were teetotal, desiccated Christian Scientists, a lawyer and an advertising man, who had shown some organizing ability and had been plucked and lifted from obscurity by Nixon. It is true that except for Johnson and, to some extent, Kennedy, the ethical climate around the Oval Office was lower under Nixon than in the time of any president since Harding. But it is hard to imagine the closest aides of any other modern presidents (or their successor with Nixon, Alexander Haig) betraying their leader as these men did. It was only a few months since they had both last sworn under oath that Nixon was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Their conduct reflected poorly on the man who elevated them, and the general atmosphere of sleaze in the upper reaches of the White House certainly afflicts the president most of all. Rose Mary Woods, Henry Kissinger, Haig, William Safire, and most of the less senior people were eminently respectable, if not in some cases paragons of selflessness. Nixon was a cynic, certainly. This came from his defensive and pessimistic nature, and because he was so accustomed to struggle and betrayal and because of his resentment of the hypocrisy of the falsely pious, even
though he emulated them at times. But he was a courageous man. He fought through Watergate longer than almost anyone else could have endured.
For his shortcomings, he had paid an unprecedented price in the history of his former office. But he was prepared to die before he admitted guilt. He did not ask for a pardon, and was ashamed when he had to accept one. The “great Americans” were unexciting servitors at their peak, and venal self-seekers and liars when they fell.
While Sirica and Jaworski and the defendants demanded Nixon’s presence at the trial, Lungren returned to see his patient at San Clemente on October 23. He was concerned to find the swelling had started again and, over strenuous protests from Nixon, brought him back to the hospital in Long Beach. He found serious vascular blockages and a danger of gangrene in his left leg, and of blood clots breaking loose and going to the heart or brain. The chief of surgery at UCLA Medical Center, Dr. Wiley Barker, examined Nixon. He found one of the largest blood clots he had ever seen, 18 inches long, in a vein leading to the heart, and he told Nixon that surgery was necessary if he wanted “to go on living.” This time there was no argument. Since Barker said the blood clot made medical history and that he would like to use the
venogram of it in his medical teaching, Nixon said that he was unable to keep anything secret and to go ahead.
The operation, in the early morning of October 29, lasted 90 minutes and seemed to be a success. But Nixon was so pale and feeble that Pat called her daughters and asked them to come at once to California. Nixon fainted and almost fell out of his bed. Nurses caught him, but he fell into a coma and emergency resuscitation was attempted, including four blood transfusions in three hours. He had suffered severe internal bleeding and his blood pressure had almost collapsed. At one point a nurse had briefly revived him by lightly slapping his face, and calling “Richard!”—the only person to so address him since the lapse of his mother into insensibility. When he recovered, he was full of foreboding and dictated reminiscences and comments for six hours to Pat and Ziegler and another aide, Frank Gannon, a final reflection on aspects of his career.
As Nixon was convalescing in hospital, he received a telephone call from no less a wellwisher than Mao Tse-tung, who hoped for a speedy recovery and said he thought Nixon was one of the great statesmen of world history. It was a generous gesture by the Chinese leader, who was not much noted for such human consideration, and Nixon consoled himself that the respect of such a man, like that of de Gaulle, outweighed the braying of many less prominent critics.
Sirica, whose implacable hounding of Nixon was becoming oppressive, announced that he was appointing a panel of three doctors to determine if Nixon was medically unable to attend the trial. Sirica had out-distanced Jaworski as the personification of retribution against Nixon, and was starting to seem like the former friend of Senator Joe McCarthy that he had been, eagerly working with Harold Stassen and others to undermine Robert Taft in the 1952 convention, and receiving preferments from Eisenhower. He was an honest judge, but he had never tempered justice with mercy in these matters, and put his own brand on Watergate with the proprietary efficiency of a soft-drink bottler.
Sirica’s medical team arrived at San Clemente on November 19, five days after Nixon’s return from hospital, and concluded that he would not be able to give a deposition before early January, or come to Washington before mid-February. Over the protests of Ehrlichman’s counsel, Sirica dispensed with Nixon and ordered that the trial proceed.
Though it had been a harrowing experience, this crisis was further confirmation that Nixon’s luck, which had been so bad so often in his life after his swift rise to the vicepresidential nomination, was aggregating into a winning streak. He had not only survived, but avoided the main Watergate trial, and the ghastly spectacle of having to refute the incriminating allegations of his former chief collaborators. Though Nixon had certainly not become a sympathetic figure, there was now no doubt about the seriousness of his illness, and there was widespread suspicion of the invocation of “unrecorded conversations” that inexplicably had escaped the defendants’ previous recollections under oath. Nixon was starting to put Watergate behind him at last. His illness had been a well-disguised blessing.
As he recovered, Nixon maintained a pretense of business as usual as best he could. He put on a suit and tie and was driven in his golf cart every day to the building where his staff worked, as if he had a good deal to do there, and even held a simulation of a White House strategy session. Nixon’s outward appearance of purposeful activity continued to irritate his enemies, some of whom were starting to
The ex-president was in a state of shock, which soon gave way to inert, almost catatonic sadness. He had almost no money.
realize that he was a more durable presence in the country than they had hoped. Few could yet imagine the proportions of the return that he had in mind.
In December, the Congress passed the Presidential Records and Materials Act of 1974, which didn’t dispute that Nixon owned his papers and tapes, but required the Archives to keep and protect them and open them at their own discretion to the public to reveal the “full truth... of the abuses of governmental power.” Nixon challenged this act and in June 1977, the Supreme Court, by 7 to 2 (with Burger and Rehnquist in dissent), upheld the act, but Nixon continued with extraordinary ingenuity and perseverance and legally prevented the intended purpose of the act from being effected. Once the hysteria against him had fully subsided, the courts could not sustain a different treatment of him compared with other presidents, and his literary execu-
tors eventually won control of the materials, but the struggle was still unfolding more than 30 years after he left the White House. Again, the post-presidential Nixon would have the best of the dispute: his right to his documents was upheld, and his executors ultimately have a greater level of ownership of his materials than would any other modern president. Nixon’s legendary tenacity did not abate in his life and did not die with him.
The Watergate jury came in on the afternoon of New Year’s Day 1975 and found the defendants guilty, as expected. Ehrlichman was vituperative in blaming it all on Nixon, Haldeman and Mitchell announced they would appeal. The verdict further depressed Nixon, who had Ziegler issue a statement of solicitude for the defendants. He took no public notice ofEhrlichman’s apostasy. It was a difficult Christmas, but Pat, who again had been a mighty source of strength for her husband, organized a surprise birthday party on January 9. Nixon was gratified to receive birthday greetings from Chou En-lai, who had also written a letter of concern over his illness, and from President Ford and from Ronald Reagan, who had just retired as governor and was preparing to challenge Ford for the Republican presidential nomination.
On Friday evening, at 9:08, April 22,1994, Richard Milhous Nixon died peacefully. He was 81, and exactly one week older than Pat Nixon had been when she had died, the year before. Obituarists were reasonably generous, though Watergate got the obligatory, and not always very well-proportioned, airing. Richard Nixon was flown for the last time on Air Force One to California; the funeral was at the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, and the burial was beside Pat.
President Clinton declared it a full state occasion and all flags on U.S. federal build-
ings, installations, and ships were lowered, for the first time since the death of Lyndon Johnson in 1973All those who had succeeded him as president were present at the funeral, with their wives; there had never been such a gathering of presidents. The Fords, Carters, Reagans, Bushes, and Clintons sat together, beside the Nixon family.
The real eulogy, from the person who worked most closely with him on his greatest projects, was delivered with great feeling and effect by Henry Kissinger. He quoted Shakespeare that “I shall not look upon his like again.” He touched on Nixon’s gruff exterior, which masked a man of frequent gentleness and sensitivity, and credited his political success in a field where he did not have a natural tendency to be gregarious. He recalled that Nixon said he would take the same abuse for doing partially something that was unpopular as for doing it fully, so that such things should be done thoroughly. He mentioned that “He had risked a confrontation with the Soviet Union in the midst of the worst crisis of his life” [in 1973]. “He held fast in the face of wrenching controversy to his basic theme that the greatest free nation in the world had a duty to lead and no right to abdicate. Nixon’s greatest accomplishment was as much moral as it was political: to lead from strength at a moment of apparent weakness, [laying] the basis for victory in the Cold War.”
At this critical moment, all rivalry between the two men finally vanished, and Kissinger’s own best instincts came naturally to his eulogist’s task. His voice broke slightly at one point, when he referred to hearing “the final news, by then so expected but so hard to accept, [when] I felt a deep loss and a profound void.” [He told the author that he felt that “part of me died with him.”]
Kissinger recounted what Nixon had done to end a war in which more than half a million draftees were “as far away from the United States as it was possible to be”; to open relations with China, and the major Arab powers; to start a peace process in the Middle East, arms control arrangements with
the Russians, and the discussion of human rights across Europe. He said Nixon “would be so pleased that President Clinton” and his other successors were here, indicating that “his long and sometimes bitter journey had concluded in reconciliation.”
No one who heard the peroration to his brief address that day will ever forget it: “So let us now say goodbye to our gallant friend. He stood on pinnacles that dissolved into
Nixon refused to acknowledge any guilt. He felt none, and would not, even if he went bankrupt, was indicted, and died, confess any.
precipices. He achieved greatly and suffered deeply. But he never gave up. In his solitude, he envisioned a new international order that would reduce lingering enmities, strengthen historic friendships, and give new hope to mankind—a vision where dreams and possibilities conjoined.
“Richard Nixon ended a war and he advanced the vision of peace of his Quaker youth. He was devoted to his family. He loved his country and he considered service his honor.” After a reception, the crowd dispersed and the world moved on, without one of its most prominent citizens of the last 45 years.
In a sense, Nixon managed to execute a radical strategic evacuation like the two great leaders he seemed to admire most of those whom he knew (except for Winston Churchill, whom he did not know well), and who admired him. Like de
Gaulle tearing himself loose from the crumbling French state and removing to Britain in 1940 where he, as he put it, “assumed France” and continued, in his own person, the personality and ambitions of a great nation; and like Mao Tse-tung disengaging from the Chinese Civil War and undertaking the 3,000-mile Long March of 1934 and 1935 to a more defensible fastness, so Nixon relinquished the presidency and began to build a legend, reconstruct his moral standing, and revise popular history.
By showing no contrition, but regret at errors committed, and carefully laying out his version of the facts, with some remorse, but no guilt or confession of crimes, Nixon gradually seized control of the national puritanical conscience that had assaulted him. All indications are that 10 years after he died, Americans were more interested in Nixon than in any political leader in their history, with the sole possible exception of Lincoln.
In fact, as the nation has come to fear, Nixon was mistreated. He was partly responsible for it himself by his own mishandling of Watergate, but he was viciously and unfairly attacked by the media, the Democrats, and some of his own partisans. He was not a uniquely sleazy president, but was treated as one.
There is room for debate over whether he dishonored, or merely demeaned, the presidency. It is beyond debate that he fully paid for his misdeeds, and that he was a very competent president. His legal and ethical shortcomings kept him out of the small group of great presidents generally deemed to comprise Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, with some argument to be made for Jefferson and Reagan. Nixon is rather in the category of unusually talented presidents who are just beneath the very greatest American leaders, with Jackson, Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman, and possibly Eisenhower (it being understood that Jeffer-
son and Eisenhower were world historic figures before they even became president). More than that, Richard Nixon has become a mighty and mythic figure.
He had two incomparable achievements: he made a virtue of his own unglamorous unease to mobilize an immense, informal army of ordinary people whom he led for decades. And he subtly nettled the righteousness of America that had slain him, until it was intrigued by, and addicted to, Nixon, and its implacable hostility had given way to uncertainty and even remorse.
By his inexorable pursuit of his goal of being always at the centre of events, decade after decade, and his constantly recalibrated self-promotion as the champion of the average person, the decent toiler, the silent majority, Nixon led a perpetual revolt against the stylish, the facile and fashionable, the well born, all those, from the Roosevelts to the Kennedys and Rockefellers, even to the Buckleys and Bushes, and in a sense to Kissinger, for whom things seemed to come easily.
He was almost never overt about whom he was running against, other than in elections. But all those scores of millions of Americans who identified with the awkwardness, the persevering courage, the endless struggle of Nixon, who never deserted him, who envied but could not identify with the wit of an Adlai Stevenson or the grace of a Jack Kennedy, gave him an immense following that continued to grow after he retired, and long after he died. To them, Richard Nixon was an inspiration, an ordinary man of superhuman determination and perseverance, indomitable, indefatigable, almost impervious to the vicious attacks of the privileged, the press, the academics, the abusive prosecutors.
And when he died at the full age of 81, he had already perpetuated himself, the unconquerable little man, the reassurance of the triumphant power of the common man. He was anything but common in his intelligence and courage and endurance, but he seemed common to those who really were common; he turned leftist playwright Arthur Miller’s
tragedy about an insignificant person upside down; his was Life of a Salesman.
Richard Milhous Nixon achieved as much as any American political leader since Lincoln, except for Franklin Roosevelt, and perhaps Eisenhower, and he did it against his own unusually troublesome anxiety and limitations and awkwardnesses. He was often his own enemy, because of his complex personality, and he attracted legions of enemies. He fought successfully all his long life, and when he died, he was acknowledged to be a unique and, in his way, a great American. His enemies fell away, and he slipped the surly bonds of mortal combat and became the embodiment, the allegorization, of generally well-intentioned determination, not less than human in his failings, but almost superhuman in his strengths. And he had begun to gnaw at the conscience of the nation.
Nixon had said, “You’ve got to be a little evil to understand those people out there. You have to have known the dark side of life.” He probably met both those criteria. He also told Chou En-lai that he wanted a “life in which I have just one more victory than defeat.” He was more successful than that.
He was, for better and worse, the personification of a large section of the American people, and they never forgot it. In the years since his death, his legend seems to have grown more quickly than his memory has receded. Richard Nixon will linger in the American consciousness for a very long time. M
Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Available in bookstores May 26.