Richard Nixon will be remembered by history for Watergate. But take the infamous burglary out of the picture and you have the most influential president in the second half of the 20th century.
Marking Nixon’s 100th birthday Wednesday, the 37th president’s family and devoted, if tiny, cadre of followers are trying to resurrect his character by drawing attention to his impressive policy successes.
They have as much chance at that as proving Washington’s cherry tree fable false. But with public opinion polls consistently ranking him among the five worst presidents, there’s just so much lower he can go.
So as the healing eons march on, Nixon may become more known for his Chinese antics, Soviet détente and the Yom Kippur airlift than his present repute as an accomplice to an amateurish burglary, the punch line for whodunit jokes and the obligatory “-gate” scandal suffix.
There are three reasons why he got such a bum rap from history.
1. His resignation. While Watergate was indeed stupid politics — he ended up crushing McGovern by winning 49 out of the 50 states — the fact that he was the only president to resign puts him in a class of his own.
Even an impeachment would have better served Nixon’s legacy. Take a look at Bill Clinton: Impeachment Class 1998. Bubba’s standing as one of the most popular politicians today is a testament to America’s tradition of blaming the bully. And if Andrew Johnson would have done something more than being the sandwich filler between Lincoln and Grant, and firing his war secretary, his impeachment would have been seen as the juvenile revenge of a warmongering Congress.
2. The Nixon Tapes. Born to an abusive father, Nixon had an outsized panorama of his own destiny. Everything was bigger when it came to Richard Milhous Nixon. Even his dog Checkers. Most importantly for Nixon, his place in history was one nobody could accurately portray. So he would tape all his Oval Office conversations and, as the American people so excruciatingly discovered, his office banter, political calculations and table gossip.
The tapes that are regularly released by his library depict the emperor at his vainest. His coarse language, raw bigotry and comical maneuverings are only bested by his letters, where he tells his political advisors to anonymously release tidbits of his private soft moments done before the clouds lift. Such as his visiting sick people “even though I didn’t have to” and his checks to charity.
Other presidents also taped themselves, such as Dwight Eisenhower’s concern that appointing a black ambassador would not be enough for them to vote Republican — only a cabinet level position would do.
But Nixon’s tapes, coming out in dribs and drabs, provide a consistent reminder to Americans why they hated him. With another tape of him emerging every few years, spewing bigotry and paranoia in such colorful vernacular, it is chalked up to Slick Rick’s plotting mortgage fraud to extend his lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
3. Nixon was a Republican in a liberal-infatuated media. Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” decided the reputations of men and he decided that Nixon was in the same league as the netherworld.
And don’t forget the Washington Post. Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Katharine Graham pursued Nixon long after The Associated Press and New York Times were offered, and turned down, the contract for meetings at dawn and overturned potted plants.
But with the last of the Nixon tapes having been released last year, there will be no new reminders of his fallacies, no novel ways we would hear of his finding a new method to diminish the Jewish electoral clout, no more bashing the Irish, San Fran or the Kennedys.
Some historians feel that following a generational gap with no new Nixon news, his reputation will start making a comeback. While today’s political class grew up in the sinister shadow of Watergate, tomorrow’s will more likely remember Fast and Furious and Iraq-gate than Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and Watergate.
NASA landed on the moon during the Nixon years, the economy during his presidency was booming and the Cold War was seen as becoming more manageable.
What President Reagan was to domestic policy, Nixon was to foreign policy.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment — the most dominant piece of legislation to promote human rights — passed on his watch. He inked the first nuclear pact with the Soviet Union, opened China to business and giant pandas, and “declared victory” in Vietnam and brought the troops home.
Nixon overruled his advisors in 1973, sending planes, arms and ammo to Israel just in time for them to rout their Arab foes.
In the final analysis, when Nixon will appear as a blip on the screen, the James Polk of the 20th century, his legacy may prove more pivotal than Reagan’s was.
Nixon’s team played heavily in George W. Bush’s activist first term, principally, his assistant Richard Cheney and chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld. George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, was his U.N. ambassador, his first executive branch position.
But yes, there was Watergate. And his dense tapes. But his actions reverberate louder.