As the Presidential helicopter gradually lifted off the White House lawn on August 9, 1974, they said he was through. Most predicted that Richard Nixon would be forever out of the American political scene. He had been through a roller coaster ride of a presidency during some of the most tumultuous times in American history – and now, after a turbulent year and a half, he was aboard Army One, on his way to San Clemente. “It’s so sad,” the First Lady whispered as the helicopter rose.
“You are here to say goodbye to us, and we don’t have a good word for it in English – the best is au revoir. We’ll see you again,” he told his staff with a candid goodbye, surrounded by his family and hundreds of friends in the East Room. “The greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes; because only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”
“Never give up, never look back, always look forward,” RN reminded us, but it is entirely possible that in late 1974, he was saying that to motivate himself.
The dangerous political climate of 1973-4 – collectively known as Watergate – was one of nastiness, one where many were concerned about advancing their own personal interests. Caught up in the middle was the President, who in his first four years had been initiating more significant changes than many of his predecessors had in eight. He was ousted from Washington and went into self-imposed exile in August 1974 – that’s all too common knowledge.
What is not common knowledge is what happened after the fact. After the illnesses, the lawsuits, the now re-popularized Frost interviews. Richard Nixon’s return to prominence is a story rarely told. Did you know that by the late 1980s, RN had reclaimed his position as one of Gallup’s most admired men in the world? This is his story of how he again confounded his enemies, and there came about yet another “New Nixon.”
In 1980, he and Pat sold La Casa Pacifica and took up roots in New York City, to start to become part of the action once again. It had been six years since his resignation. His illnesses had passed, Mrs. Nixon was still improving every day from a 1976 stroke, the mood of the country had changed and the possibility of a major conservative realignment was more real than at any time before – the time seemed right.
He lurched back into the political scene, first by writing books voraciously. Their subsequent publications enabled him to take book tours and gradually begin to shake the pariah-like image he had acquired.
New York life appealed to him, and allowed him to expand – again – his prominence, and be, as he put it, on the “fast track.” “The assumption that Richard Nixon was truly gone from public life,” wrote author Elizabeth Drew, “was a vast under-appreciation of the man’s extraordinary resilience, his deeply embedded determination to rise again.” He began speaking again at public forums, highlighting his foreign policy achievements, especially the far-reaching overtures to China and their impact on the Soviet Union. Questions from young people asked him to predict the outcome of upcoming elections. He insisted on giving these speeches using only a single microphone without a podium, for he recited speeches and talks totally without notes.
More still, his brownstone in the City gained a reputation as the place to be. He and Pat entertained celebrities, businessmen, politicians, and journalists at frequent, special evening dinners.
He worked the phones, as he had done avidly in the White House, and everyone took the President’s calls. He traveled the world: tours of Europe, the Middle East, five more trips to China. He consented to dozens of interviews, wrote guest articles for The New York Times and Foreign Affairs, sent papers outlining his foreign policy views to the media. All the while he was expanding his constituency, his base, and reuniting with former aides in Washington.
Soon enough, even his successors came knocking. Incumbent Presidents sought him for his expertise, primarily in foreign affairs. Lengthy memorandums from former President Nixon began arriving in President Ford’s office, expressing his views on issues and documenting progress made during one of his Chinese trips. President Carter invited him to a state dinner at the White House for Chinese leaders – his first time back to the mansion since 1974. He and President Reagan – already close friends – exchanged correspondence frequently, ranging from substantive discussions on the Soviets to birthday messages and messages of support here and there.
His “redemption,” as Time Magazine put it, had taken hold and allowed him to become “the world’s unique and ubiquitous elder statesman without portfolio.” He was back – and so proclaimed Newsweek on a May 1986 cover, at the direction of none other than Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham.
All that was now needed was a presidential library. After considering several venue options – including RN’s alma mater Duke University and an oceanfront site in San Clemente – Yorba Linda, California was chosen and ground was broken in 1988.
What followed two years later, on July 19, was a grand spectacle and reunion of four presidents for the first time in history. Over 50,000 friends, fans, and well-wishers joined the Nixon family, Fords, Reagans, and Bushes to pay honor to President and Mrs. Nixon with the dedication of his presidential library, the only library built completely without taxpayer funds.
The climax of his return to the political arena seemed to be when President Clinton invited him to the White House in March 1993 for a substantive discussion on Russia in the post-Cold War world.
He had indeed reestablished himself as a leader, decisive counsel, and celebrity in his own right. Far had he come from the dark days of Watergate, and the exile and illnesses. There was still controversy – it literally followed him his entire life – but he was again making a difference.
“Nixon was amazingly resilient to the end,” Drew wrote, “not only surviving his defeats but coming back and back, creating his own restorations, repeatedly presenting the public with a ‘New Nixon.’”
In large part, the New Nixon of the ‘80s and ‘90s prompted President Clinton to say this at his funeral in April 1994:
“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… 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.”
And I agree.
Photo: President Nixon visits President Bill Clinton at the White House on March 8, 1993.