Tricky Dick Reconsidered

The grounds at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

The grounds at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.


Say the name, Richard Milhous Nixon and the words that come to mind are probably these:

Tricky Dick

“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.

His childhood home, built from a kit his father ordered, still stands. It's rather small, but filled with charm.

His childhood home, built from a kit by his father, still stands. It’s rather small and cozy.

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 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.

A special exhibit at the library shares the memories ordinary people had of Nixon. Some are amusing.

A special exhibit at the library shares the memories ordinary people had of Nixon. Some are rather amusing, like this one.

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.

This memory made me laugh.

This one gives me a chuckle.

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.

24 thoughts on “Tricky Dick Reconsidered

    • Thanks so much, Marilyn. As you can imagine, it was hard to write this post, to admit anything good about a president who was less than honorable and who so many grew to revile, me included. Thanks for your comment–and for reading!

  1. His brother Edward will be a speaker at APIC convention in October. Contact Tom Keefe 518-438-8431

    I shook hands with Nixon 3 times. At an exclusive luncheon on Miami Beach in 1965, in the rope line at Tampa airport in 1968 and in the rope line at Miami airport in 1972.

    Nixon bugged a hotel room. Last few presidents, esp current one and their agencies have everyone in the country bugged.

    • Carl, on the tour I took of his childhood home, the docent said that his brother attends special events there and is the spitting image of Richard, right down to his cadence. These presidential libraries seem to do a good job of providing us with nuggets of history lessons.

  2. “I am hurt but I am not slain,

    I shall lay me down and bleed awhile,

    And I shall rise and fight again.”

    I like that. Perhaps he thought he would rise again.

    Monica, did I ever tell you I watched All The President’s Men about 10 times?!


  3. This is a very balanced and fair look at the man. Believe me, there have been times, especially when GW was in office, that I never thought I’d long for Nixon, but I did. And you’re right. Compared to the nutbags that the current crop of Republicans have devolved into, his sanity would never be questioned.

    • I know, Jayne. I wish we could go back in time to the Repubs of yore. Funny, I thought they were bad then; little did I know. Turns out they were pretty tame/reasonable/willing to negotiate back then.

  4. I learned things about Nixon I never knew. Watergate was the standout for me. He never struck a chord with me. I often searched for something about him, his legacy, something to talk to my girls, and nothing, zip. Here you are my friend…You made it so interesting for me. He suffered much, I never knew his brothers died of tuberculosis. So sad. What a great post.

    • Thanks, MM. Did you also know that he taught himself to play the piano, and he was very good at it? He and his brothers slept in one room which was more like a loft, with low ceilings, two to a bed. I think if you take your daughters to see the small home he grew up in, that’ll make it real for them. Also, how by establishing the EPA, he did a lot to help our environment. He was also a staunch supporter of our space program. We had great success in space during his administration.

  5. I’ve read a couple of editorials in my local paper on Nixon’s legacy. I came away still confused. The thing I remember the most about him was the Watergate coverage preempted As the World Turns – I had just turned 12. Your post sums it up perfectly. His accomplishments score a few points with me. We will see what the public thinks over time.

    • Savvy, I remember how the Watergate hearings preempted EVERYTHING. There was nothing to watch on TV that summer except the hearings. There was no cable then; we only had a few channels. But I remember watching John Dean testify, mostly because I remember thinking he was cute.

  6. I remember reading several years ago that Jackie Kennedy had a long standing correspondence by mail with Nixon. I also learned after Ted Kennedy died that he regretted his long standing fight over healthcare with Nixon because Nixon proposed a far more comprehensive plan than Obama did but because of his feelings toward Nixon it didn’t happen. Nixon was his own worst enemy in so many respects. His behavior unfortunately overshadowed what could have been for this country. Most past presidents wouldn’t have stood the scrutiny of today but trust is something that needs to be earned and the media plays way to big a role in encouraging and discouraging that trust in our leaders and not always based on facts.

    • Well, Nixon hated the Kennedy’s. Resented their wealth and how easy it was for them to go to Harvard. Nixon wanted to go to Harvard but couldn’t afford it, so he ended up staying close to home. He was super smart, too, and would’ve done well there.

      Anyway, he despised the Kennedy’s and it’s in the tapes he recorded while in the White House. Ironically, in ’68 he almost ran against Robert Kennedy and probably would have if Robert hadn’t been killed. Who knows how different that election might have turned out?

  7. Well, this is most interesting, Monica — having never been to a presidential library (certainly not Nixon’s!), I didn’t know all this — and time has dulled the memory of this president. We have a way of vilifying those leaders we don’t like (and canonizing those we do). That’s sad, because most of our leaders, like average citizens, are both good and bad; in other words, they’re human. It’s kind of unfortunate when one goes down in the history books based on only one deed though. And it’s especially disheartening to think he was the impetus behind our distrust of government and our leaders!

    • Debbie, you were probably too young too remember all this and I certainly wasn’t as politically inclined then as I am now. I was too busy studying at college and ogling boys to really pay attention. But it was on the periphery of my life and I remember what a big deal it was when he went to China and opened those doors. And I remember the summer of Watergate hearings. It was all anyone talked about. I tried to watch but was bored as it seemed to go on for hours and nothing happened. But then I recall the resignation and what a big deal that was and how it erased everything he did. There was so much anger and distrust in the air. It was an awful time, that’s for sure. Anyway, I’m glad to point out here some of the good he did.

  8. Yet another excellent post Monica.

    As very much an outsider I always thought Nixon looked for want of a better term but is one you used in your post “A bit shifty” whenever I saw him on the TV news.

    It also shows that people can do a lot of good but that all the good can be overshadowed when they are remembered by an almost single bad thing.

  9. I’m glad you wrote this. It is heartening. He did a lot of good things that I did not know about. And I am also glad to see him in this new light. Thanks, Monica. (Talk about productive!)

    • Yes, Jodi, it is productive. I read your post on Sunday when I was relaxing. But on Friday, I drove 90 minutes to the library, and spent the entire day there. On Saturday, I spent a large part of the day writing this post and trying to be as fair and accurate as possible because I know the very name, Nixon, can be a hot button. Then, on Sunday I rested. Whew.

  10. You write a brave piece here given the distrust so many people hold for him. I like your perspective and it reminds me of Diane Sawyer’s defense of Richard Nixon. She always treated him with respect and deference, therefore when she covered him I listened. I never thought he should ever be totally dismissed because he did accomplish a lot, nor did Diane Sawyer. My own sister has benefited from his legacy working with the Department of Ed, bridging education interests between the US and China. She has made numerous trips to China, and my nephew worked there for two years. China and the Chinese, a land and people they both love, would not have been such a profound influence in their lives without his opening diplomatic relations. He had vision.
    Yes, our family has visited presidential libraries: my daughter and husband visited the Reagan in CA, and I have visited the Ford in MI, and both Bush libraries, one at Texas A&M and the other at SMU. My first presidential library visit was the LBJ at UT in Austin.
    I liked this post for its positive perspective and equanimity.

    • Georgette, I wasn’t familiar with Diane Sawyer’s defense and now I’m intrigued. Will need to look into this further. Thanks for letting me know! You are so lucky to have seen so many of the presidential libraries. I hope to, too, one day. My brother said his favorite so far is LBJ’s. Took him two days to tour that one.

  11. Yes, Nixon was a very complicated man. I will always hold mixed feelings about his presidency. His paranoia was very much his downfall. His accomplishments were notable and phenomenal. I think it’s typical of American culture to boil people/history down to one defining moment. Thank you for sharing a bit of the bigger picture.

    • Lisa, I definitely have those mixed feelings, too, though I feel I can appreciate him more now that I’ve learned more about him and his work. At the heart, his intentions were sincere. He just went about it in a way that is abhorrent to most of us, and there you have it.

Comments are closed.