He recorded one of America's worst political scandals and rocked the notion with his resignation from the presidency. But many historians believe the accomplishments of Richard M. Nixon will outlast his gaffs.
He was the first president to resign, America's schoolchildren forever will recite in lessons about Richard M. Nixon, the nation's 37th president who died on April 22 at age 81. Yet with the passage of time, he may be credited with more noble accomplishments, say many political leaders and historians.
"There really was a silent majority out there, and it supported him -- in 1972," says Claes Ryn, politics professor at the Catholic University of America and chairman of the National Humanities Institute, of which Nixon was honorary chairman. The general public, as opposed to the elite, had an intuitive affinity for Nixon as a man of humble social origins who proved his ability over the years, notes Ryn.
Indeed, the man historians once said would be forever disgraced by the Watergate scandal drew lines of mourners three miles long to his funeral April 27 on the grounds of the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., once the site of the farm where Nixon was born and where his boyhood home still stands. He was buried next to his wife, Pat, who died last year.
President Clinton and four former presidents -- Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and George Bush -- attended the funeral. Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who called Nixon's long and turbulant career "an astonishing life:" joined Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, California Gov. Pete Wilson and President Clinton in delivering the eulogies.
Curiously, the same elite establishment media that reviled him in life have helped rehabilitate him in death. Former New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, a liberal who wrote a surprisingly sympathetic book about Nixon, notes that, in the week following his death, television and newspapers were filled with reminders of what the late president accomplished in foreign and domestic policy.
Many credit the key event of the postwar decades -- the fall of Soviet communism -- to the tenacity of the pre-detente Nixon, who insiders say was a mentor to Ronald Reagan's peace-through-strength policy. He also opened China to the West and pulled the United States out of the Vietnam War without causing the kind of civil upheaval normally seen when a modern power swallows defeat. In recent years, history's kinder assessors have depicted Nixon as the wise senior statesman.
Nevertheless, media analysts say the deep cynicism that infuses the press today -- the lust to topple the powerful -- began with its adversarial experience under Nixon that led to the Washington Post's Pulitzer prize. Nixon's 1974 resignation "marked the beginning of public distrust" of government officials, House Speaker Tom Foley said on CNN.
Historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote a three-volume biography of Nixon, believes the president's second term might have allowed him to make a memorable mark in domestic affairs if Watergate had not cut it short. With his foreign-policy goals accomplished, Nixon would have funneled military money into health care and welfare reform, alternative energy research, student loans and increased revenue-sharing with states. "In his second term he dared to call it a |new American revolution,'" Ambrose says. "He was in a unique position to put through those reforms [because he was a Republican]. Here we are 20 years later, and it sounds a lot like Bill Clinton's domestic agenda."
Though a self-described conservative, Nixon advocated expanding federal programs from food stamps and block grants to housing subsidies and Social Security benefits. "His mandate for health care, for instance, will seem very liberal today," Foley said. In fact, Nixon addressed health care reform in his book, Beyond Peace, completed shortly before his death. "The Clinton health plan, if enacted -- all 1,342 impenetrable pages of it -- is less a prescription for better health care than a blueprint for the takeover by the federal government of one-seventh of the nation's economy," Nixon wrote. …