Its hard to re-live history especially when it’s painful. Its hard to re-live old memories especially when they’re painful. So it seems amazing that one forgets about old pain until slapped across the face with it as I was today. Surely, you must be thinking — huh — he’s lost it now — right? Well, I haven’t lost it I just hopped into a time machine to the past:
So yor first thought is who is that? Well, venture a guess:
It was my good fortune that just a few days ago the Library re-opened after a multi-million dollar facelift that revitalized the “museum” with updated exhibits using the latest in interactive technology. The National Archives has assumed control displacing the original crew of Nixon cronies (some might call apologists). They have done a wonderful job — this is my tenth visit to a presidential library. Each has as unique as the man it represents.
Like it or not Nixon has been an influence in all of our lives since 1952. That year Ike won the presidency with Nixon as his VP — until 1960 — his staunch anti-Communist positions while in Congress greased the skids to the VP. But it was the Checkers scandal (his first in 1952) that could have ended his campaign before it began. Instead he gave a pleaful televised address to implore the country to believe he did nothing wrong–Checkers was the name of a dog given to him as a gift after the speech:
Surely you know this — in 1960 he ran for president losing to Kennedy–in a very close election –so close he could have contested the results. But he didn’t for the good of the country –sound familiar?
I knew about this family — Pat, Tricia, Julie…though not about the dogs. Well, ok I knew about Checkers — his cocker spaniel. But I didn’t know about the Irish Setter, the miniature poodle and a Yorkshire terrier — all going to the White House in 1968:
Nixon was smart he could have matriculated to Harvard on a full ride, but his family was so poor he couldn’t afford to travel east much less live there. He stayed home working in the family store and attending Whittier College — later Duke for law school. He met Thelma “Pat” Ryan (his future wife) while they both acted in a play at the college -really! And both were of Irish and Quaker descent:
Every one knows he ran for and won the presidency in 1968 running as a law and order candidate — oh, and he said he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War. Well, he eventually defeated Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace — it’s was quite the campaign — plenty of election artifacts on view:
Nixon figured out how to use television after losing to Kennedy because of TV — he appeared on a topical comedy program called Laugh-in — using self-deprecating humor (Nixon looked into the camera and said, “Sock it to me!”) to make himself look more human — something all candidates do today:
Yes, Nixon did end the war and he concurrently ended the draft (literally days before I was due to be drafted) and replaced the draft with the all-volunteer armed forces we have today. Depending on my mood I vacillate on the value of this idea.
The remainder of Nixon’s first term was filled with some heady stuff that has had repercussions to today: he signed Article IX into law (women got equal protection and rights under the law); Nixon started the EPA (signed he Clean Air Act); supported the lowering of the voting age to 18; signed legislation to protect pensions; increased arts funding; opened the door to China — this was huge—see the handshake — it had been 25-years since an American official and a Chinese official had shook hands:
Many referred to this venture as “ping-pong” diplomacy:
and Nixon successfully initiated negotiations for nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union — below Nixon is with Leonid Brezhnev, the Leader of the Soviet Union at the western White House in San Clemente, CA:
So f you haven’t figured it out yet Nixon was really on an impressive roll — how could he possibly lose to McGovern in 1972? Well, frankly he couldn’t. McGovern was an extreme, but good-hearted lefty — first one since as anyone running for president since Henry Wallace tried to wrest the nomination from FDR in 1944:
Nixon knew he would overwhelm McGovern. Heck, it was 49 states to one!
This brings us to Watergate. Knowing everything we know — that Nixon knew — why Watergate? Why indeed? The Library’s exhibits delve deeply into the issue. One can listen to tapes, see parts of the Watergate hearings, see the “plumbers” discuss their actions and read reams of documents.
I spent considerable time listening to the tapes, viewing the interviews and reading the exhibits. I’m perplexed — was this corruption of the soul, the body politic or of the process? Could it be all three? The British historian Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely:
The more I consider Nixon the less a sufficient answer rings true to me. Was it fear of success? Was it paranoia? Nixon grew up in the depression — extremely poor. He was one of five children but lost two siblings at young ages.
Could these events caused Nixon to develop devices within his persona that he used to protect himself from the “evils” of the world? Nixon himself seemed uncertain even up to the David Frost interviews which as a whole did provide some view into Nixon’s tortured soul.
If it sounds as though I’m sympathetic I’ll admit that as time passes I have a better grasp of why someone like Nixon might behave so irrationally. However, that doesn’t mean I can completely forgive and forget. He was a bright, complex person — an introvert in a profession made for and controlled by extroverts. Perhaps he never understood that what he’d accomplished prior to this disaster was historic and that his legacy would have been significant once he completed his second term. We will never know. It was interesting that when he was asked by Frost about whether he was sorry. He was caught by surprise and after a moment of reflection he blurted out a heartfelt, tearful apology to the American people:
As we all know Nixon would have been impeached. Instead he reluctantly resigned. Soon thereafter Gerald Ford his predecessor pardoned him and the whole mess eventually recedes. But its effects never quite disappear. Today we have numerous laws regarding ethics, privacy, etc., on the books because of the Watergate debacle.
Many have equated Nixon to a Shakespearian character and maybe he is — so full of personal disappointments and tragedy. Is it really that simple you be the judge or does there have to be more?
Of course, Nixon is gone and with him are any further insights into Watergate:
Nothing is that simple and when assessing the human condition one needs to also take humor into account — it’s so bizarre to see this photo and read the accompanying letter offering services at no cost:
One thing I do know is that each visit to a presidential library feels like a time warp that’s disrupting the certitude of my time as a traveler and observer of life. Which is why I found this other photo to be so comforting — it pretty much sums it up for today, tomorrow and forever — right?