In a number of decades that saw some very strange men occupy the White House, historian Stephen Graubard wrote, Richard Nixon may well have been the strangest.
Yet no matter what history calls him, Tricky Dick has punched and kicked his way into the West’s collective consciousness. There lies this embattled man’s final victory: the naysayers that Nixon built up and beat down failed to shake off a dead man they went the same lengths to destroy as he did them.
But why has King Richard – the subject of more psychoanalysis than any of his fellow presidents – clung to public view, now that two generations have come of age never having witnessed Cuba, Cambodia, or Kent State, let alone felt the mass hysteria of the ‘60s and ’70s that he abused so well?
It’s because Richard Milhous Nixon embodied America’s divided soul. For starters, there’s the modest origins: the Quaker boy from a dying lemon ranch in Yorba Linda; the son of poor, pious grocers; two of his brothers dying of tuberculosis; spending most of World War II playing poker in the navy.
Then comes the revolting rise to fame – baiting closet commies in the age of McCarthy, the slander he directed at cleaner and gentler opponents in Congress and the Senate, and the clash of egos between crusty old President Eisenhower and frustrated, foulmouthed Vice-President Nixon. When reporters asked Eisenhower what major decisions his understudy had taken, the general sniped, ‘If you give me a week, I might think of one.’
There’s also his first major failure: Nixon’s soul-crushing loss to JFK for the presidency, in among the closest elections in history. Compared to his opponent, Nixon actually fought honourably – something he knew not to try before, and learned never to repeat since. Those beautiful Kennedy boys, assisted by machine bosses like Daley in Chicago and Lyndon Johnson in Texas, almost certainly rigged it.
But to hear the press tell it, the Kennedys were the royal family, and Nixon their wretched foil. Said journalist and devoted enemy Hunter S. Thompson,
For years I’ve regarded (Nixon’s) existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.
True, this is the lore of Dick Nixon, but it would be foolish to miss the key talent of this inarguably brilliant man: mastering the art of division. As one biographer wrote, ‘He is so many American stories all at once, he consumes so much of our culture…the poor kid who made good; the bad kid who got caught…the loser who won, the winner who lost.’
It was an ability he’d exploit to no end. Rejected by the Ivy League palaces he applied to, turned down by New York’s glittering law firms, defeated for the presidency by a pampered Boston Brahmin and his corrupt-as-sin daddy, Nixon fuelled the resentments of the base he led about as much as he personified them.
And few men could convert self-pity to success the way he could. He first fired up a career of half-truths by listing his assets on TV, with a sickly sweet tribute to Checkers, his daughter’s cocker spaniel. ‘No matter what they say,’ he said, voice warbling, ‘we’re going to keep it.’ Thought by elite columnists to be among the most humiliating experiences the nation had to bear, it was a PR hit across the country.
It had to be. Reviling or revering Richard Nixon, wrote historian Richard Perlstein, had become ‘a key seam of the American divide’ long before he ever scaled the presidency. It only made sense, then, that Nixon would finally win the top job amid national trauma in 1968: capping off war, race riots, and gunshots for Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King.
In a wonderful inauguration speech, Nixon implored the country to heal, and promised to mend its soul. He was lying. In office at last, he pandered to what he deemed the Great Silent Majority, preying on a constituency that was white, middle-class, and fed up with a counterculture that had spun out of control.
In creating that constituency, King Richard went for broke. He was a graceless, spiteful mirror to the many who, as one commentator put it, were neither charming Kennedys, nor privileged Bushes, nor slick Clintons. It was this status as the outlier, the rags-to-riches president ‘that could neither relate to rags nor riches’, that endeared him to the hard hats he had so little in common with. The Nixon voter wanted nothing more but to give those dirty hippies a kicking. Their president was happy to oblige.
If only it could have ended there, but Nixon’s unravelling had long been written in the stars. When his equally ruthless predecessor Johnson said, ‘(Nixon)’s like a Spanish horse, who runs faster than anyone for the first nine lengths, and then turns around and runs backwards,’ it was a prophecy from a man that died years before Watergate. Tricky Dick’s re-election bagged the largest margin of victory ever recorded for a Republican, and yet it gave him not a second of peace – his demons had long outrun him. Self-destruction soon followed.
Domestically, Nixon’s Keynesian economics and environmental reforms wouldn’t have been attempted by a wide-eyed liberal. His efforts at desegregation also went unsung, if by those who still remembered how his campaign had exploited racial dread to win the South. He hired ‘anecdotalists’ to observe him and record instances of male toughness. He indulged in the wildest anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and spoke of ‘the Jews’ in phrases that were alternately racist and fearful. As for gender, the Leader of the Free World was recorded saying, ’I’m not for women, frankly, in any job. I don’t want any of them around. Thank God we don’t have any in the cabinet.’
But it was foreign policy that was Richard III’s overweening passion, steep though he did it with his own persona; adoring China-aligned thugs like Yahya and Ceausescu, and launching into filthy tirades about democrats as eccentric as Trudeau (‘I had been called worse things by better people,’ said Trudeau) and as false as Indira (‘We really slobbered over that old witch,’ huffed Nixon).
On the latter note, the president’s singular adoration for Pakistan went some distance beyond the humdrum of the Cold War, unmatched by any other in the Oval Office. ‘Pakistan is a country I want to do everything for,’ he had said as early as the ’50s. His commitment to Islamabad persisted all the way to 1971, and climaxed with the most wrenching denouement in Pakistan’s history – one it has yet to come to terms with, or face up to.
But Nixon always had his eye on Asia itself: he opened China, mounted massacres in Cambodia, and withdrew from Vietnam. Even so many years later, the sheer scale of humanity erased by the bombs that rained on ‘Indochina’ renders the administration both inhumane and unforgivable. Desperate to forget how Saigon had fallen – and to drown out the screams still coming out of Phnom Penh – America hailed Nixon’s trip to Beijing as the greatest thing to happen to foreign affairs since, well, Kennedy: here was a former McCarthyist that shook hands with Mao, and ended up shaking the world.
But the sheen soon came off at home. Watergate destroyed the president for good, a third-rate burglary per the overrated and over-indulged Henry Kissinger, his war criminal sidekick. Nixon, who had gotten away with so much for so long, would be upended by a bunch of sad saps breaking into an office building that kept the Democrats’ papers; a squalid ending to a surreal life.
Yet the same question remains asked of such leaders: do they hold any relevance today? Nixon, and to a greater extent Reagan, fathered the modern-day Republican Party, maneuvering the diehard Democratic South into an unthinkable realignment with GOP ideals of law and order, world prestige, and status affirmation for worried whites.
Speaking for a ‘silent majority’ was Nixon’s final act of division, a mutant strain that rejected both Lincoln’s better angels and Johnson’s Great Society, fracturing the United States across lines of race, wealth, and social status, and creating the blue state-red state polarity that his successors continue to exploit. Not least, he left the presidency a greatly weakened institution, adding to people’s faithlessness in government. It would take Ronald Reagan, a mass manipulator in his own right, to erase the gloom of Poor Richard from nation and party.
Ironically though, it seems difficult to imagine an entire generation of grubby neocons – including its biggest monsters, Rumsfeld and Cheney – coming to prominence without catching the eye of Nixon and his successor, America’s last accidental president.
Meanwhile, the same pop culture Tricky Dick feared and despised has also embraced him, if as a symbol of surly adult authority, as it has embraced the over-the-edge era he became one with. Nixon’s ghost makes cameos in kid’s cartoons, pop histories, and dystopias set in a reality where he never resigned, with the rest of the universe much poorer for it.
His last day in office saw a tearful speech, characteristically bizarre and introspective: ‘My mother was a saint’, and ‘Others may hate you, but they don’t win, unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.’
Inconsolable at his wife’s funeral in 1992, he succumbed to popular expectation for the first time, dying less than a year later. With fitting strangeness, it was perhaps Nixon’s final, awkward, intrinsic symbol of the dual victory – as he departed in disgrace from the White House lawns – that continues to inspire love and hate for the many Great Silent Majorities to come.