Richard Nixon Reconsidered
By Jeff Lukens
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 combative political rise gave forewarning
of 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 steal the presidency away with
the graveyard vote in Texas and 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.
Until that time, communism was viewed as a
monolithic movement. Nixon saw the fissure between China and the Soviet
Union, and brilliantly triangulating America's strategic position in the
world by advanced 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
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
While Nixon knew nothing of the break-in at the time
it occurred, his failure to decisively cleanse the White House of those
committed crimes entangled him in a cover-up that would destroy his
presidency. Nixon acknowledged, "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, both 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
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
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, we can expect 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
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.
On 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.
* * * * *
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 restored his legacy.