An article by Richard J. Cross III in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun deserves quotation in full. Mr. Cross IDs himself somewhat in the piece; more recently he was press secretary and speechwriter for former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich.
In February, America celebrated the bicentennial of its most revered president, Abraham Lincoln. Its most controversial president – Richard M. Nixon – resigned 35 years ago today.
Richard Nixon fascinates me. This began when his old nemesis Alger Hiss visited one of my classes at the Johns Hopkins University, and grew when I worked for former Rep. Helen Bentley, once an official in the Nixon administration. Along the way, I devoured every Nixon biography I could find.
Sharing this news typically elicits offers of intervention from concerned friends. Eventually, people ask me why.
First, Mr. Nixon led an epic life. He ascended from freshman congressman to vice president in just six years. He is one of only two Americans to run on a national ticket five times. He dodged multiple attempts by a hostile establishment to write his political obituary. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives. I count four in Mr. Nixon’s: his rise, his triumph, his fall and his resurrection.
Second, Mr. Nixon was always a step ahead in gauging voters’ attitudes. The “Silent Majority” coalition he built helped the GOP win seven of 11 presidential elections between 1968 and 2008. Conservatives distrusted Mr. Nixon, but without him there would never have been a President Ronald Reagan.
Third, Mr. Nixon was tough. During the winter of 1935, a maintenance man found an impoverished law student squatting in a tiny unheated tool shed, the walls insulated by cardboard. “I’ll manage all right if you don’t run me out,” Mr. Nixon assured him. For better or worse, that fortitude was evident throughout his life.
Fourth, Mr. Nixon achieved. He launched the war on cancer, created the Environmental Protection Agency, opened the door to China, signed an arms control agreement with the Soviets, desegregated schools (68 percent of black children in the South attended all-black schools in 1968; 8 percent did by the end of 1972) and brought innovative approaches to domestic and foreign policy. He also presided over a GOP not yet skewed toward social conservatism.
Obviously, not all aspects of Mr. Nixon’s career are as admirable. But where Nixon haters see Darth Vader, I see Wile E. Coyote.
As I see it, inept burglars broke into a national party headquarters, a secondary source of useful political intelligence. Rather than respond with transparency, Mr. Nixon and his aides plotted to cover up the caper – on tape. At the same time, GOP minions inspired by Democratic prankster Dick Tuck engaged in a sophomoric dirty tricks campaign to win an election they couldn’t lose.
Clearly, a president preoccupied with his political adversaries made bad decisions and paid a terrible price. Still, it helps to put things in historical context.
JFK countenanced the wiretapping of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. LBJ unleashed J. Edgar Hoover and led the country into war under false pretenses.
Further, America recently completed 16 years of successive polarizing presidents – one who was impeached and one who left office as unpopular as Mr. Nixon during Watergate.
Comparatively speaking, were Mr. Nixon’s errors worse?
My Nixophilia peaked Jan. 20, 1994, when I attended a Nixon administration reunion in California. Frail and reeling from the recent death of his wife, Mr. Nixon spoke without notes, delivering forward-looking, forceful remarks. It was one of his last speeches.
As I watched, I thought of those he engaged during his long career: Truman, Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Johnson, Rockefeller, Humphrey, DeGaulle, Brezhnev, Mao – and even Presley. Long after a tumultuous time in history had ended, Richard Nixon was still standing.
One day, President Nixon will be judged in the context of when he served: a time of social and economic unrest resulting in five abbreviated presidencies. One ended in assassination. One ended in war. One ended in scandal. Two presidents were fired by voters.
Richard Nixon was a brilliant, flawed politician. Whether his flaws or his brilliance defined him is a question best answered by tomorrow’s historians.