August is usually a slow month for news, so we are spoon-fed anniversaries to contemplate: Hiroshima’s 61st, Woodstock’s 37th, and it was 32 years ago, tomorrow, when Richard M. Nixon resigned from the presidency. Since his death 12 years ago we have been asked to reconsider Richard Nixon.
Fair enough, let’s give the man his due: The entire culture shifted gears the day President Nixon threw in the towel. The brilliant strategist, the awkward sleuth, the proud father, and the coldest of warriors had left the building.
August 9, 1974 was a day to hoist one for his enemies, many of whom must have enjoyed his twisting in the wind of Watergate’s storm. It was the saddest of days for his staunch supporters, whose numbers were legion. Either way, Richard Nixon’s departure from DeeCee left a void that no personality has since filled.
For the first time since his earliest commie-baiting days, in the late-‘40s, Dick Nixon didn’t matter. With Nixon gone being anti-establishment promptly went out of style, too. With the war in Vietnam no longer a front burner issue, "streaking" -- running around outside naked -- replaced the anti-war rally as the most popular gesture of defiance on college campuses.
Soon what remained of the causes and accouterments of the ‘60s was packed into cardboard boxes to be tossed out, or stored in the basement. Watergate revelations killed off the Nixon administration’s chance of instituting national health insurance. Many people have forgotten that his regime was easily more liberal on racial and environmental matters than any before it. Although he was a hawk, Nixon was moderate on social issues.
His opening to China, and efforts toward détente with the Soviets, are often cited as evidence of Nixon's ability in the realm of foreign affairs. No doubt, that was his main focus. But at the bottom line, Nixon is remembered chiefly as the President who was driven from office. And for good reason.
Nixon’s nefarious strategy for securing power divided this country like nothing since the Civil War. Due to his fear of hippies and left-wing campus movements, Nixon came between fathers and sons. To rally support for his prosecution of the Vietnam War he demagogued and exploited the bitter division between World War II era parents and their Baby Boomer offspring in such a way that many families have never recovered.
However, Nixon’s true legacy is that since his paranoia-driven scandal, the best young people have no longer felt drawn into public service. Since Watergate, for 30-some years now -- taken as a whole -- the citizens who’ve gravitated toward politics for a career have not had the intellect, the sense of purpose, or the strength of character of their predecessors. Some trace the cycle of endless paybacks across the aisle to that era. as well.
We can thank Tricky Dick for all that and more.
So weep not for the sad, crazy Nixon of August, 1974. He did far more harm to America than whatever good he intended. On top of that, he had twenty years to come clean and clear the air. But he didn’t do it. He didn't even come close. In the two decades of his so-called “rehabilitation,” before his death in 1994, Nixon just kept on being Nixon.
Some commentators have suggested that he changed over that period, even mellowed. Don't buy it. The rest of us changed a lot more than he did. While I acknowledge his guile and I tip my hat to his monumental gall, President Nixon was a man who choked on his own bile. So spare me the soft-focus view of the Nixon years.
Yes, dear reader, I’m here to remind you, and the horse you rode in on, that Tricky Dick Nixon's fall from grace should be a lesson to us all -- he got what he deserved.