The Enduring Lure of Richard Nixon

Nixon on his second day as president, Jan. 21, 1969.

Nixon on his second day as president, Jan. 21, 1969.

Coming up to the 41st anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency (August 9), we find that he’s still part of our national culture, like a barnacle that simply won’t be scraped off.

He was the heavy in the the first presidential election I remember — the jowly, borderline-scary guy who opposed the cool, collected, in-command John Kennedy.  To a nine-year-old, the choice was clear.  Who could trust this figure composed of so many dark elements?

When he won a presidential election eight years later during the Vietnam War, he did it with skulduggery that bordered on treason:  his intermediaries passed the word to South Vietnam’s leadership that they shouldn’t cooperate in peace talks because a Nixon Administration would insist on a more favorable settlement.  The South Vietnamese dutifully boycotted any talks and Nixon won the campaign on a pledge to find peace with honor, which was exactly what he had just prevented President Lyndon Johnson from doing.

As president, his performance was so maddeningly mixed.  He presided over tragic continuing American involvement in the Vietnam War for four more years, another 20,000 American deaths and many more injuries, securing a peace with no honor that led inevitably to the collapse of South Vietnam.  His policies on Vietnam were cravenly designed to serve his own political needs with little regard to the devastation inflicted on Vietnamese and American lives.

Yet his diplomatic outreach to China was farsighted and important, while his domestic policies included the enactment of groundbreaking environmental-protection laws:  the National Envrionmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.  His civil-rights enforcement record was respectable.

And then, of course, there was Watergate, the intertwined patterns of government overreach that mingled viciousness with small-mindedness in a way that never fails to appall and ultimately caused a large majority of the nation to turn away from its president in disgust.  With impeachment looming, he became the only president to resign from office.

I think it’s the contradictions that have made Nixon such an enduringly fascinating character.

Nixon never got off the third-string for the Whittier College football team, but kept trying.

Nixon never got off the third-string for the Whittier College football team, but kept trying.

I got a renewed whiff of this a couple of years back at the Nixon Presidential Library’s exhibits, which were then a weirdly bungled yet compelling attempt to tell his story.  Until his mid-twenties, Nixon seemed an impressive young man.  His family — serious Quakers in Southern California’s Eden, a contradiction right there — struggled financially.  Two of his brothers died of illness.  His boyhood house was humble.  Yet Nixon was fired with ambition.  He was smart and academically successful, learned five musical instruments, and fell in love with a smart young woman who landed bit parts with the movies.

But there seems always to have been a dark side, growing from that ambition.  He rose like a rocket in Republican politics.  By age 39, he had won a spot on Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential ticket.  But Ike didn’t seem to care much for or about his bright young running mate.  After eight years in the wilderness of the vice presidency came the flameout of the 1960 presidential election, then losing the California governor’s race in 1962.

And then the comeback of 1968 and the final flameout from Watergate.  Except Richard Nixon never accepted oblivion, not even then.  He wrote books and spoke to world leaders and slowly, painstakingly tried to rehabilitate his image.

Sometimes, the darkness inside Nixon just came out.

Sometimes, the darkness inside Nixon just came out.

Now he’s the plaything of artists and composers.  In March, the San Diego Opera staged Nixon in China,the John Adams opera about his China initiative.  In movies, there are All the President’s Menwhich is really about the hunt for Nixon over Watergate, and Oliver Stone’s Nixonin which even the brilliant Anthony Hopkins couldn’t capture Nixon’s complexity.  Thomas Mallon’s recent novel Watergate is a brilliant contemplation and interpretation of Nixon, his people, and his time.  The recently-released novel Crooked purports to take a supernatural riff on Nixon’s dark side.

And, of course, the historians and biographers have been beavering away, trying to make sense of this melange of a man, his achievements and catastrophes.  One of the great moments in Nixon obsession arose last Sunday when Carl Bernstein — half of the Woodward/Bernstein team at the Washington Post that pursued the Watergate story so brilliantly — reviewed two current Nixon books (in the Washington Post, natch).

Bernstein used the occasion for a brilliant application of the Goldilocks paradigm — you remember, not-too-hot, not-too cold?  He ripped Evan Thomas’ Being Nixon: One Man Divided for being too kind to Nixon; sure, the humanizing moments noted by Thomas were true, Bernstein admits, but Thomas let the man off the hook too much.  And what about Tim Weiner’s One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon?  Far too tough for Bernstein’s taste, falling too often into “gratuitous attribution of base motive to almost everything Nixon did.”

It may be too much to expect Bernstein to applaud anyone’s version of Nixon other than his own.  Personally, I’m looking forward to the Nixon bio being written now by Jack Farrell.  Bernstein probably won’t like it, but what does he know?  Nixon belongs to all of us.

More’s the pity.


  1. Elaine Swank on July 31, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Was amazed to hear Doris Kearns Godwin say LBJ suggested taping in the White House to Nixon. She was just on the Daily Show.

  2. Michael Causey on August 2, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    A really insightful piece, David.

  3. Matthew Loten on August 31, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    With regards to big-screen portrayals of Nixon, I thought that Frank Langella was superb as the Jowly One in Frost/Nixon.

    My policy has always been to judge presidents by their achievements and intentions in office, rather than their personality, but separating the man from the President is exceedingly difficult in Nixon’s case. As you mentioned, his domestic policies bear scrutiny in many areas, and Vietnam was an issue that no President of that era handled satisfactorily. However, the methods by which he conducted his politics left much to be desired, and ultimately sullied what may, on another character’s CV, have been perceived as a respectable record.

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