In President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech last Thursday, he cited President Nixon’s trip to China as an example of a bold and controversial action by a leader that furthered the cause of peace:
In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable — and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul’s engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan’s efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe.
In his speech, the President named some of the men and women whose “vision, hard work, and persistence” led history to bestow on them the title of peacemaker:
John Paul II
Martin Luther King, Jr.*
John F. Kennedy
George C. Marshall*
Aung Sang Suu Kyi*
*asterisks indicate Nobel Peace Prize laureates; Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, received the first Peace Prize in 1901.
The President’s inclusion of RN amongst this noble company drew little attention and scant controversy. Indeed, writing in Politico about the Oslo speech, Larry Sabato observed:
Obama also smartly included Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in his parade-of-history salutes. Reagan properly receives some credit for the fall of Communism, but if any modern Republican deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, it was Nixon. Yes, Nixon-and this is written by someone who wasn’t exactly a Nixon fan during the Vietnam War and Watergate. But in the light of history, Nixon’s opening to China and his policy of détente with the U.S.S.R. made enormous contributions.
In fact, President Obama’s inclusion of RN as one of these leaders, visionaries, and peacemakers may be seen as the thirty-seventh President’s passage from the exurbs of rehabilitation to the outskirts of apotheosis.
There have been many turning points and milestones on the long and winding road from 9 August 1974 in Washington to 10 December 2009 in Oslo.
In 1978, the publication of RN’s memoirs –RN— following on the broadcast of David Frost’s four 90-minute TV interviews, marked the return of the former President as an active presence on the American scene.
The Frost interviews were broadcast in May 1977 and RN was published in the fall of 1978.
In the summer of 1980 the Nixons moved to New York —“the fastest track in the world” as he called it— and the former President began enjoying a busy life as a best-selling author, adviser to politicians and presidents, globe-trotting traveler, committed sports fan, and doting grandfather.
In 1984 CBS broadcast an hour of Nixon interviews on 60 Minutes, and in 1986 he appeared on the controversial and widely discussed Newsweek cover that announced: “HE’S BACK.”
In 1987 John Adams’ three act opera Nixon in China —commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Opera, and the Kennedy Center in Washington— was premiered to great acclaim. Alice Goodman’s free-wheeling libretto took liberties with the characters’ psychologies, but the work rose above controversy and introduced the idea of RN’s life and career as subjects of rich dramatic significance and potential.
Nixon in China is now considered one of the major operas of the 20th Century; it is also one of the few modern operas that has actually found a popular audience and continues to be presented in opera houses around the world. The original Peter Sellars production will be revived in the 2010-2011 season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; and the work’s Canadian debut will coincide with this summer’s Olympics in Vancouver. Another new production will be mounted in March 2010 — by the Long Beach Opera — just up the road from Yorba Linda.
Cover art for Nonesuch’s 1990 complete recording of Nixon in China. The 3-CD set became a surprise classical best-seller and is still in print. This summer it was joined by a new complete live recording conducted by Marin Alsop.
On 19 July 1990, the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace was opened in Yorba Linda. President and Mrs. Bush and former Presidents Ford and Reagan and their First Ladies joined RN and PN and their family for the celebration.
The Nixon Library Opens — on 19 July 1990, RN and PN hosted several of their successors at the opening of the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda.
In 1992 RN hosted President George H. W. Bush at a conference on “America’s Role in the Emerging World” presented by the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Washington.
In January 1994, RN established the Nixon Center as a foreign policy think tank in Washington. In March 1995, President Clinton was the guest of honor at a Nixon Center dinner at the Mayflower Hotel. He spoke warmly and admiringly about President Nixon, who had died eleven months earlier.
Indeed, President Clinton’s heartfelt and thoughtful eulogy, delivered on 27 April 1994 in the presence of his four living predecessors and their First Ladies at President Nixon’s funeral at the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, was one of the major turning points on the road from August 9th:
27 April 1994: President Clinton eulogizes President Nixon during the funeral at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.
President Nixon’s journey across the American landscapes mirrored that of his entire nation in this remarkable century. His life was bound up with the striving of our whole people, with our crises and our triumphs.
When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past, and in foreign policy. He came to the Presidency at a time in our history when Americans were tempted to say we had had enough of the world. Instead, he knew we had to reach out to old friends and old enemies alike. He would not allow America to quit the world.
Remarkably, he wrote nine of his ten books after he left the Presidency, working his way back into the arena he so loved by writing and thinking and engaging us in his dialogue. For the past year, even in the final weeks of his life, he gave me his wise counsel, especially with regard to Russia. One thing in particular left a profound impression on me. Though this man was in his ninth decade, he had an incredibly sharp and vigorous and rigorous mind. As a public man, he always seemed to believe the greatest sin was remaining passive in the face of challenges, and he never stopped living by that creed. He gave of himself with intelligence and energy and devotion to duty, and his entire country owes him a debt of gratitude for that service.
Oh, yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are a part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times. He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die. Well, based on our last phone conversation and the letter he wrote me just a month ago, I can say that his spirit was very much alive to the very end.
That is a great tribute to him, to his wonderful wife, Pat, to his children and to his grandchildren, whose love he so depended on and whose love he returned in full measure. Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation to remember President Nixon’s life in totality. To them, let us say: may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.
Every living former President and First Lady joined President and Mrs. Clinton at RN’s funeral in Yorba Linda. Other eulogists included Henry Kissinger, Bob Dole, Pete Wilson, and Billy Graham.
In the summer of 1995, Joan Hoff published Nixon Reconsidered. A history professor at Indiana University and Co-Editor of the Journal of Women’s Studies, Hoff attempted to put RN’s presidency in an “historical rather than histrionic perspective.” The book received widespread —and surprised— attention for its bold (and impressively researched) thesis that RN’s domestic contributions would be seen as even more important and enlightened than his widely admired foreign policy. Professor Hoff wrote that RN:
exceeded the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society in the areas of civil rights, social welfare spending, domestic and international economic restructuring, urban parks, government reorganization, land-use initiatives, revenue sharing, draft reform, pension reform, and spending for the arts and humanities.
Other books had played a part in preparing for a reconsideration of RN. Stephen Ambrose’s three-volumes (1988-1992), and Jonathan Aitken’s 1993 biography supplemented RN. And Tom Wicker’s One Of Us appeared just a few months before Professor Hoff’s bombshell.
Throughout this period, RN himself was a prolific and best-selling author whose books were widely reviewed and discussed. They included The Real War (1980), Leaders (1982), Real Peace (1984), No More Vietnams (1987), Victory Without War (1988), In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal (1990), Seize the Moment (1992), and the posthumously published Beyond Peace (1994). He traveled widely and appeared strategically on op-ed pages.
After his 1978 memoirs RN, RN’s post-presidency best-selling books ranged from profiles of leaders he had known, to on-going analyses of American foreign policy, to personal essays.
In 2006 playwright Peter Morgan turned the unlikely material of the David Frost interviews into a compelling and highly successful play. Frost/Nixon, directed by Michael Grandage, and with Frank Langella as the former President, filled houses and won awards in London and New York. A road company starring Stacy Keach as RN toured across America.
In 2008 it was made into a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Oscar-nominated film directed by Ron Howard, with Frank Langella reprising his West End and Broadway role. The Morgan-Grandage-Howard-Langella version introduced a new generation of worldwide play and moviegoers to the notion of a smart, witty, complex, and compelling Richard Nixon.
It’s possible that President Obama’s thinking about his thirty-seventh predecessor has been influenced by the most recent milestone passed between ’74 and today — which came last August from a little-suspected source. In his column in the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein wrote about Edward Kennedy, who had died three days before: “Asked about his greatest regret as a legislator, Ted Kennedy would usually cite his refusal to cut a deal with Richard Nixon on health care.”
Writing in Newsweek , J. Lester Feder expounded on this idea:
It must pain those fond of Senator Ted Kennedy that his death comes just when the current health-reform effort is threatened by the same kind of attacks that tanked previous efforts. In fact, the Obama health-reform package Kennedy supported in his last days is similar to one Kennedy helped defeat when proposed by President Richard Nixon. If anything, the Obama plan is more conservative. Nixon would have mandated that all employers offer coverage to their employees, while creating a subsidized government insurance program for all Americans that employer coverage did not reach. It would take a miracle to pass such a plan today—a public insurance plan and an employer mandate are two provisions of the proposals now in Congress that are most in doubt.
RN had no illusions about the time it would take for history to be ready and able to assess him realistically and objectively. In RN, he described the scene as he left the Oval Office after delivering his resignation speech on the night of 8 August 1974:
Kissinger was waiting for me in the corridor. He said, “Mr. President, after most of your major speeches in this office we have walked together back to your house. I would be honored to walk with you again tonight.”
As we walked past the dark Rose Garden, Kissinger’s voice was low and sad. He said that he thought that historically this would rank as one of the great speeches and that history would judge me one of the great Presidents. I turned to him and said, “that depends, Henry, on who writes the history.” At the door of the Residence I thanked him and we parted.
RN was aware that the process of historical rehabilitation is usually measured more in centuries than decades. Privately, he thought that fifty years (the passage of two generations and their passions) would be the minimum amount of time required. (The most recent example, David McCulloch’s Truman, had appeared twenty years after HST died and four decades after he left office with a 22% approval rating and mired by scandals.)
Now, thanks to President Obama’s Oslo imprimatur, the timetable for reconsideration has been considerably moved forward. It may even be that in 2010 —twenty years after RN’s Library opened and sixteen years after his death— it might be well begun; and, that by his 100th birthday in 2013, it might even be well under way.
A Once and Future Slogan: a bumper strip from the 1972 campaign.