Say the name, Richard Milhous Nixon and the words that come to mind are probably these:
“I’m not a crook”
That’s how it’s been for me, and though the Watergate scandal was so named, after the classy hotel where it all began, the “-gate” part of the name has come to signify just about any scandal–Benghazigate, Nipplegate, Bridgegate and so on. Back in the 1990s, there was even a “Monicagate,” and I’m pretty sure you know what that was about.
Well, this weekend, to mark the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Nixon, I ventured to the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, California. There, I met up with my brother, his wife and my niece.
Apparently, my brother’s been trying to visit as many presidential libraries as he can. For me, this was my first visit to a presidential library and, to be honest, I wasn’t keen on the choice.
I’ve never been much of a Nixon fan. Not then and not since. He seemed shifty to me. Back in the 1950s he’d been a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, for crying out loud, a group that ruined the lives of many. And don’t get me started on the JFK/Nixon debates. Definitely something questionable about him, if you ask me.
Yet, I’m so glad my brother convinced me to go. It was an eye-opening experience, causing me to see this president in a whole new, admittedly sympathetic light.
No doubt, Nixon’s presidency was marred by both the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. (If you do not know what Watergate is, check out this informative site from the History Channel, as well as PBS.org.) Also, by his seeming refusal to make history by appointing a woman to the Supreme Court. Oh he made a pretense of it, but it was never his intention to actually do so.
I will not pretend to now be an expert on Nixon, just because I spent five hours at the Nixon Library & Museum, but I am amazed at what he was able to accomplish while in office, particularly when you consider that he was a Republican and by today’s Republican standards, what he did then would never pass muster now.
To give you an example, he lowered the voting age and put an end to the draft. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and desegregated schools in the South. He also opened diplomatic relations with China. He allocated $100 million to the war on cancer, an thus ushered in an era of research and development of antidotes to the disease. He signed Title IX, which not only prevents gender bias at universities receiving federal aid, but opened the door for women in collegiate sports. He cracked down on organized crime, convincing J. Edgar Hoover to let the FBI work in tandem with other government agencies in order to take down the Mob. This resulted in over 2,500 convictions by 1973. He also put an end to forced assimilation of American Indians, and returned sacred lands to them.
He had his issues for sure. The “Mad Men” mentality–sexism, anti-Semitism, etc.–was alive and well in Nixon. That, coupled with a deep-rooted paranoia and power that had gone to his head, ultimately led to his downfall and resignation. When Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon as president, pardoned him a month later, many of us were outraged. It had robbed us of seeing justice served.
That decision ended up costing Ford, whose popularity immediately plummeted, any chance of being elected to serve an additional term. Only the distance of time has made some see that what Ford did then was right for the country, allowing us to heal and move on.
After visiting the Nixon Library & Museum, I believe Nixon cannot and should not be defined by Watergate alone. There. I said it. For he wasn’t all evil, hateful and filled with lies.
He was a complicated figure with many flaws, to be sure, who came from a modest, Quaker background. He knew the meaning of a dollar. In order to afford college, he had to wake up at 4:00 am every morning before class and buy the produce for his father’s market. He’d set up the produce stand, too, and make it back to school by 8:00.
A few years after Watergate, Nixon himself wondered what history would say about him, and how he would be judged. He quoted a couplet:
“I am hurt but I am not slain,
I shall lay me down and bleed awhile,
And I shall rise and fight again.”
“That’s the story of my life,” he added solemnly.
After all is said and done, Nixon was human, after all, left with an ache in his heart when two of his four brothers died of tuberculosis. One, Arthur, was only nine, and the loss of his little brother left him devastated. Beneath his cool, calculating veneer, Nixon had a wealth of compassion. It’s too bad the good he did is buried in a pile of rubble, lies and our national loss of faith and confidence in our government. All because of Watergate, which is still the biggest, most profound -gate of them all.