The Legacy of Richard Nixon: He got big things done

His historic achievements overwhelm his freak show of abuses, argues a journalist and biographer

Bill Clinton, who knows something about sin and redemption, said it best. In a eulogy at Richard Nixon’s funeral, Mr. Clinton told the mourners: “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”

That was 20 years ago; the spring of 1994. Mr. Clinton’s presidency was young, but he had tasted what perils an unrelenting partisan opposition, and a hostile press, could pose to a chief executive.

The burden of the Oval Office forms bonds among those who bear it. And perhaps, knowing his own flaws and secrets, Mr. Clinton was making a pre-emptive plea to history for measured treatment of all.

No matter the motive, we should take his advice. In this latest Watergate summer, which marks the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation from office, it’s time to cut Tricky Dick a break.

Don’t get me wrong. Nixon deserved to go. He joined in an illegal conspiracy to cover up a serious crime. The silly folk on cable news may argue that such-and-such a teapot tempest is “worse than Watergate.” They’re only displaying an ignorance of history.

The break-ins and bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate were the marquee act of a whole freak show of abuses. Had they not been caught in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972 (wearing business suits and rubber gloves, carrying traceable bundles of $100 bills), G. Gordon Liddy’s crew of clowns had another burglary planned that night: of Sen. George McGovern’s campaign headquarters on Capitol Hill.

They had already bungled a previous break-in at the office of the psychiatrist who was treating Daniel Ellsberg, the activist who leaked the Pentagon Papers. They had cased McGovern’s convention hotel, in Miami, Florida; Sen. Edmund Muskie’s campaign headquarters and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.; a Las Vegas newspaper, and other potential targets. At the White House, and in the president’s re-election campaign, other aides had been bugging newsmen, circulating enemy lists and pressuring the IRS to hound prominent liberals and journalists.

Worse than Watergate? Not likely.

A president resigned and accepted a pardon for his crimes. The vice president of the United States, Spiro Agnew, resigned and pled no contest to income tax evasion for accepting bribes. Two attorneys general were found guilty, as were the White House chief of staff, the president’s counsel, the domestic counselor, the president’s personal lawyer, the director of the CIA, the top officials of the president’s campaign committee, a flock of other White House aides and more than a dozen of the country’s mightiest corporations and their executives — including American Airlines, Goodyear Tire, Gulf Oil, Northrup and Phillips Petroleum — who sought to buy favor via campaign contributions (Hello? Chief Justice Roberts?). Throw in Mr. Liddy and the gang and, all told, some 60 individuals and more than a dozen corporations were found guilty. Twenty-five men went to prison.

So what’s the case for giving Richard Nixon more equitable regard?

Well, there are other lists to ponder. Consider this roster of just the more familiar faces who served their country as Nixon aides or appointees: Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush, Caspar Weinberger, Robert Dole, George Shultz, James Baker, Daniel P. Moynihan, Brent Scowcroft, Arthur Burns, Paul Volcker, Russell Train, William Ruckelshaus, Alan Greenspan, Pat Buchanan, William Safire, John Connally, Elliot Richardson, Herb Stein, Al Haig, William Simon, Colin Powell, Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, Warren Burger, Ray Price, James Schlesinger, Melvin Laird, Bryce Harlow, Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

You may not share their political opinions, but that’s a talented bunch. And they got stuff done.

Any one of Nixon’s grander foreign policy initiatives — ending the war in Vietnam, negotiating strategic arms and missile defense limits with the Soviet Union, the opening to China — would have marked his as an historic presidency. He helped save the state of Israel in the Yom Kippur war and the parleys with the Arab states that followed. And as Nixon played the Great Game, his appointees haggled with Democrats in Congress, making historic progress on integrating southern schools, protecting the environment, sheltering Social Security from inflation and recasting the world’s banking system by taking the United States off the gold standard. Nixon and Congress ended the draft, gave 18-year-olds the vote, launched a war on cancer and required equal treatment and funding for women in education and sports. (Note to Al Gore: They even nursed the ground-breaking research on the Internet.)

But, most of all, we should recognize the streams in which Nixon swam. The Watergate scandals opened a rare window of openness, in which Americans learned how all the Cold War era presidents had abused power.

The Church Committee and other investigatory bodies showed how the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and other national security agencies had violated civil liberties, eavesdropped, opened mail, bugged and burgled for years. Dissidents were harassed, foreign governments overthrown and foreign leaders targeted for assassination; the government tested drugs on unsuspecting Americans and cut deals with Mafia hoodlums.

Nixon’s innovation was to bring this kind of misconduct in-house. When the aging FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wouldn’t do for Nixon what he’d done for Nixon’s predecessors, the president formed his own secret police force, accountable to no one and led by callow aides and intellectual titans like G. Gordon Liddy. The results were predictable, but Nixon, a painfully insecure individual who had clawed his way from a barren childhood in the California outback to the White House, was blinded by grievance and resentment, and a certain ugliness of spirit. These were tragic flaws of Shakespearean proportion, to which he succumbed.

At the very outbreak of the Cold War, George Kennan, a leading American expert on the Russians, sent a famous “long telegram” from Moscow to Washington, outlining the dangers posed by Soviet expansion. But Kennan also warned of an overreaction: “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with the problem of Soviet Communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

In the aftermath of Watergate, we leaned how the Cold War presidencies, to one degree or another, succumbed to this danger. Lyndon Johnson has been pilloried, but mostly for his blunders in Vietnam. It is Nixon who’s been selected to pay for the rest; Nixon who’s been picked to die for our sins. Yet his first campaign brochure said it all: “Richard Nixon is One of Us.”

John Aloysius Farrell, a contributing editor and correspondent for both The Atlantic and National Journal, wrote biographies of the late House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill and legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow. He is now working on a biography of Richard Nixon for Random House.

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