Aug 9, 2009

Guess What Happened 35 Years Ago Today?

Answer: America's "long, national nightmare [was] over," according to brand-new President Gerald R. Ford. Richard Nixon had just departed Washington on what until that moment had been Air Force One, leaving behind the tattered remains of his presidency.

Thirty-five years later, America still doesn't quite know what to do with Richard Nixon. The man was an enigma in life, in office, and in death. He was one of the most brilliant presidents we have ever elected--on par (or at least comparable) to Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. He was steely and hard-bitten. Unfortunately, those very virtues helped produce the vices that proved to be his unbecoming. His intelligence and quick uptake of political situations gave him an aristocratic erudition on the Congress and on his fellow citizens. Nixon, by God, knew that he knew best, and he'd be damned if anyone tried to tell him differently. His lower-class upbringing, however, gave him an inferiority complex that would plague him the rest of his life. John Kennedy, who so famously defeated Nixon by a hair in 1960, was the opposite personality: he was rich and bright, and he was perfectly comfortable with himself (probably too comfortable).

Nixon was a fighter, though, and he fought to the last. He famously remarked in his resignation announcement that he had "never been a quitter". It is true. That same man had gone from being a freshman congressman to Vice President of the United States in six years. He had run for president and lost eight years later, ending what many said would be a promising career. His obituary was supposedly sealed when he lost the governorship of California (famously announcing to the media that they wouldn't "have Nixon to kick around any more"). However, he made a comeback. The 1964 Democratic landslide was short-lived, and by 1968, the country was ready for someone calmer and more trustworthy than Lyndon Johnson. It thought the answer was Richard Nixon. His election in 1968 culminated his fourth campaign on a national ticket; his total would be five, tied with Franklin Roosevelt as the highest for anyone in American history. He won 49 of 50 states in the election of 1972, but that election included the Watergate burglary, and the rest is history.

Nixon remains notoriously difficult to decipher
. His foreign policy and domestic victories came at a raucous time in our history and in the face of extreme Democratic opposition. Measured without Watergate, he was remarkably successful. However, that hypothetical is impossible, because with Nixon's resignation, America was struck again by strong cynicism for its leaders and distrust for its pinnacle institutions. That alone mitigates many of those successes.

Nixon continued to advise every president after him--specifically on foreign policy. He was a trusted (though secret) confidant; interesting personal traits for a man who so brazenly betrayed the public's own trust in him. I imagine that history will never quite know what to do with him. Memories are still too fresh to give an honest look; there are still those who worked with him and loved him and those who fought him and hated him. Those firsthand opinions will need to pass before any real assessment can happen.

Today, however, it is important to remember what President Ford said after the resignation. The "national nightmare" was over, but, "my fellow Americans....Our Constitution works." Though presidents may fall, the nation still stands.

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