Opinion: Nixon legacy still contested due to early success

David Shribman

Yorba Linda, Calif.

He was, like Calvin Coolidge, an introvert. He was, like Theodore Roosevelt, a battler. He was, like Bill Clinton, a policy wonk. He was, like Donald Trump, a polarizing figure. He was, like Warren Harding, a scoundrel. He was, like John F. Kennedy, a dreamer. He was, like Lyndon Johnson, a prisoner of Vietnam. He was, like Woodrow Wilson, a student of the presidency. He was, like George H.W. Bush, an experienced master of government. He was, like William Howard Taft, a reluctant practitioner of the political arts. He was, like Herbert Hoover, a tragic figure.

And yet there never has been anyone remotely like Richard Milhous Nixon.

The other day a group of Nixon loyalists gathered here—where Nixon was born and where his fears, resentments, insights and dreams took root—to mark what would have been his 106th birthday. ‘’He continues to impact our lives through his foreign policy and domestic achievements,’’ said William H. Baribault, president of the Richard Nixon Foundation, said at the commemoration.

And Sunday is the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s ascendancy to the presidency, an event largely unmarked but worthy of fresh attention. In a remarkable Inaugural Address overshadowed by Kennedy’s and forgotten by history, the 37th president spoke of the great promise of the moment, the ‘’high adventure’’ of the time, the chance to ‘’shape decades or centuries,’’ and this conviction, written in the text of his address and sandblasted onto his tombstone: ‘’The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker."

Richard Nixon’s battles are over—he died a quarter-century ago, before Netscape Navigator, the phrase ‘’information superhighway,” and Justin Bieber were born—but the battle over Richard Nixon continues.

‘’The Nixon years were a a period of fertile ideas,’’ said the historian Richard Norton Smith, who has served as director of the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan presidential libraries. ‘’We tend to forget that because of the way it ended.’’

Then again, Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University and the author of a biography of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor Nixon resisted and eventually caused to be fired, believes Nixon crossed several forbidden Constitutional boundaries. ‘’The tragedy of the Nixon presidency is that he won re-election as one of the most popular presidents in American history yet he squandered that by trying to embellish his place in history even further—and that ended up destroying him.’’

This debate—malignant tumor on our politics or master of modern politics, or both—has raged since Nixon first ran for the House here in 1946, flared when he disparaged Helen Gahagan Douglas in a 1950 Senate campaign still regarded as a case study in character assassination, singed when as Dwight Eisenhower’s embattled 1952 runningmate he delivered the cloying ‘’Checkers’’ speech, and burned through his three presidential races.

‘’His opponents accept their view of him as a proto-fascist, dog-whistling bad guy,’’ said Frank Gannon, who accompanied Nixon in his early exile and retirement, assisting him in his writing. ‘’But he was a domestically liberal, international conservative, middle-road politician.’’

Fifty years ago, when he took the ancient Oath of Office on the East Front of the Capitol, Nixon showed that after 23 years in politics he still had the capacity to surprise, for he delivered an Inaugural Address seldom matched in its eloquence and began an administration seldom equaled in its sense of high purpose and innovation.

‘’There was real hope that he would do something to wind down the war in Vietnam,’’ said John Roy Price, part of the Nixon domestic-policy team and one of the centrist Republicans who founded the Ripon Society. ‘’There was also hope among some of us coming in that he would do something to improve race relations.’’ Price said he joined the administration ‘’to help Richard Nixon restore faith in American institutions.’’

The domestic-policy operation Price joined, along with future Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, was headed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard professor whose heart was broken by the Kennedy assassination. Its remit included health care, welfare, urban initiatives, even the sort of guaranteed-income program that Sen. George McGovern proposed in his doomed 1972 race against Nixon. In those early days, Nixon embraced environmental programs and endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment.

‘’A lot of time has elapsed, and people have put Nixon in greater context,’’ said the conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, then a top Nixon aide and later a presidential candidate himself. ‘’There’s now constant reference to the foreign-policy achievements, the summits with Russia and China. But his domestic agenda makes him seem as the last Republican progressive. Of course I opposed some of these things.’’

Richard M. Nixon waves to Republican National Convention delegates as he stands with his running mate Gov. of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew in Miami, Fla, Aug. 8, 1968 after accepting the party's nomination as presidential candidate. (

He may not have been the New Nixon—that was a confection he concocted—but this was a new profile for Nixon, evident especially in his views on Vietnam, which began to take form with a 1967 Foreign Affairs article he wrote with the assistance of Ray Price, later the principal sculptor of Nixon’s Inaugural Address.

‘’He thought he could bring about a change from a bipolar international system full of malaise into a new, more fluid international situation,’’ said the historian David Eisenhower, President Eisenhower’s grandson and Nixon’s son-in law. ‘’The riddle he ran on was: End the war and win the peace. We usually won wars to get peace. He implied that the whole continuum of win and lose wouldn’t necessarily work. I saw him give 130 speeches in the campaign but I didn’t understand what he was up to.’’

People have spent a lifetime not understanding what Nixon was up to, a view he didn’t discourage. The presidency of Donald Trump has only renewed attention on Nixon, with Trump opponents finding new virtue in him by comparison and Trump supporters finding common cause with Nixon in the new age.

‘’This was a remarkably gifted and complicated man,’’ said Roger Porter, who teaches a Harvard course on the presidency and is the only person who has had appointments from each of the last nine presidents. ‘’He had a brilliant mind in many ways. He was prepared to do big things as president.’’

Those early years—and that elegant, evocative Inaugural Address—remind us of the high hopes and the deep disappointments. Nixon is gone but he is still with us. A half-century later he still haunts, and bewilders, us.

David M. Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.