A Reevaluation of Richard Nixon

The World and I, September 2004 | Go to article overview

A Reevaluation of Richard Nixon


Thirty years after his resignation from office, President Richard Nixon is increasingly seen by scholars as a pivotal figure in American politics whose skillful pragmatism unwittingly gave rise to the current ideological clashes between Republicans and Democrats.

Historians taking part in a recent conference at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, said that while Nixon's unprecedented resignation on Aug. 8, 1974 sealed his popular image as the slippery and ruthless "Tricky Dick," his presidency was actually a watershed event that set the stage for much of today's political landscape and that still reverberates.

"Nixon was a complex personality leading a complex nation during complex times," said conference speaker Walter McDougall, a Pulitzer Prize- winning historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Even Watergate will someday be put in a larger context and will be seen as the most dramatic episode in a rebellion by Congress and the courts against executive power--in what [historian] Arthur Schlesinger termed The Imperial Presidency."

That determined revolt by Congress, it was surmised by the prestigious panel at the cozy gathering at Nixon's Orange County birthplace and library, was nurtured by the nation's turbulent times and opened the door to a new generation of political heavyweights.

The liberal Democrats who had disliked Nixon as far back as the Alger Hiss spy scandal in the late 1940s had by the late 1960s ridden the wave of Vietnam and civil rights that swept away many of the old-time big- city-machine politicians.

On the other end of the spectrum, the conservative Goldwater Republicans, who owed their allegiance more to social ideology rather than to the corporate power brokers, had banded together in protest of Nixon's unprecedented outreach to the communist regimes in Moscow and Beijing.

"He was closer to the [moderate] Rockefeller wing of the party than he was to the conservative movement," opined Herbert Parmet, author of a biography on Nixon as well as biographies on Presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush. "In that sense, Nixon belonged to the past."

Former Nixon speechwriter Raymond K. Price, speaking at the conference, called Nixon "a pragmatic Republican. He didn't accept everything as dogma," he explained.

Nixon's reliance on his honed political instincts, plus the changing social times, resulted in his persona being vilified by both sides, which left him vulnerable to a growing feeling in Congress that it was time for the legislative branch to assert its power over an executive branch that had pretty much run the show since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

Without a strong bloc of support on the Hill, Nixon was doomed when the Watergate scandal hit the fan. Nixon himself acknowledged his lonely isolation in his televised resignation speech. "From the discussions I have had with congressional and other leaders," Nixon said that sultry August night. "I have concluded that, because of the Watergate matter, I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office."

His departure in dishonor created an open scramble for the presidency in which his own vice president, Gerald Ford, was saddled with Nixon's "Tricky Dick" image and was hammered in the mid-1970s by Jimmy Carter on the Democrats' side and Ronald Reagan in the GOP.

"The 1976 primary was really about Nixon and who was going to control the Republican Party," observed Len Colodny, author of Silent Coup, a work that focuses on the plentiful intrigue that took place during the Nixon presidency. "If he had served out his second term, I don't think Ronald Reagan would have been elected in 1980."

McDougall said it was Nixon's ability to woo southern Democrats from George Wallace's camp to the Republican side that paid off for the GOP by forming "the core of the Reagan coalition that won the White House in 1980 and a majority in Congress in 1984. …

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