August 9, 1999: August is usually a slow month for news, so we are spoon-fed anniversaries to contemplate: Hiroshima’s 54th; Woodstock’s 30th; it was 25 years ago that Pres. Richard M. Nixon took the fall. The entire culture shifted gears the day 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 still legion.
Either way, Richard Nixon’s departure from D.C. left a peculiar void that no personality has since filled in anything close to the same way. For the first time since his earliest commie-baiting days, in the late-‘40s, Dick Nixon suddenly had no clout.
Upon Nixon's departure, concern for social causes went out of style for a lot of young Americans. It was time to party. Soon what remained of the causes and accouterments of the ‘60s was packed into cardboard boxes to be tossed out, or stored in basements.
Watergate revelations killed off the Nixon administration’s chance of instituting national health insurance. On top of that, many people have forgotten that he was also rather liberal on environmental matters, at least compared to the science-doubting Republicans who have followed. Although he was a hawk, Nixon was moderate on some of the social issues.
Nixon's opening to China and efforts toward détente with the Soviets are often cited as evidence of his ability to maneuver deftly in the realm of foreign affairs. No doubt, that was his main focus. Still, 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 looked at ex-Beatle John Lennon and instead of a sarcastic musician, in his view Nixon saw a raw power to galvanize a generation’s anti-establishment sentiments. Fearful of that imagined potential, the sneaky Nixon administration did everything it could to hound Lennon out of the country.
Nixon deliberately drove a wedge between fathers and sons. To rally support for his prosecution of the Vietnam War, he sought to expand the division between World War II era parents and their baby boomer offspring. The families that never recovered from that time's bitterness were just more collateral damage.
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 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. 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.
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. On top of that, Nixon had 20 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.
So, spare me the soft-focus view of the Nixon White House years. Tricky Dick's humiliating downfall should be a lesson to us all -- he surely got what he deserved.