In the video game Knights of the Old Republic II, the mysterious and manipulative character Kreia says when asked about her past: “What do you wish to hear… That for every good work that I did, I brought equal harm upon the galaxy?”
I find I am reminded of this quote whenever I think of the late President Richard Nixon. If you ask me who my favorite President is, I don’t know the answer. Lincoln, Adams, Grant, Eisenhower and Truman are among those I’d consider. But if you ask me who the most interesting President is, I would unhesitatingly say “Nixon”. He is a complex figure, difficult to categorize. He is not a hero, but not completely a villain.
If some of my fellow liberals are shocked by my attitude, consider that Noam Chomsky called him “the last liberal President”. Or that George McGovern, who lost to Nixon the 1972 election, said “With the exception of his inexcusable continuation of the war in Vietnam, Nixon really will get high marks in history.”
You know the so-called “Obamacare” law so much in the news? The one that many a Tea-Partier has called “socialist” and “Marxist” and so on? Well, Nixon advocated a very similar plan. Yes, Tea-Partiers, you are in the position of arguing for the prosecution of Richard Nixon as a communist. That would be tough, because Richard Nixon got his big break arguing for the prosecution of other people as communists. See what I mean about him being complicated?
Let us deal with the elephant in the room right now: Nixon’s racist and sexist views. There is no denying it; he held views which to the modern liberal are absolutely horrifying, and would not be allowed in mainstream society. He was a racist, sexist, anti-semitic jerk, but you know what else? The Nixon administration was far more liberal on Civil Rights than people may remember. Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment that was later to be thwarted by conservative Phyllis Schlafly.
When I read about Nixon it seems, as others have said, like there were two different Nixons. There was the moderate, in some ways even progressive and liberal President Nixon, and then there was the nationalistic, pessimistic, racist, cruel and divisive Candidate Nixon who campaigned on racial divisions and demonized his opponents as radical decadents bent on destroying America.
I think this is what makes him so fascinating: he was a Jekyll and Hyde kind of a character; which made him dramatically interesting. If you wanted to make a dark, psychological drama about a President, well… “Nixon’s the One”.
As I’ve written before, the campaigner Nixon undid the New Deal coalition and realigned the voting blocs in a way that persists to this day. As Rick Perlstein wrote in his brilliant Nixonland: “How does Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.”
Yet, many of his policies were liberal by today’s standard. And his personal story is remarkable. He clawed his way up from being dirt poor. The last Republican candidate could no more relate to the type of hardship he endured in his youth than he could consider saying he is a Keynesian.
Nixon was never personally popular, and I don’t think he really wanted to be. He knew it would get votes, so he sort of tried, but he didn’t viscerally want it the way many politicians do.
People in general either hated Nixon or liked his policies. He was not an intrinsically likeable man. That said, there were some people who were amazingly loyal to him, like Rose Mary Woods and maybe his hagiographer, Monica Crowley. (Read Crowley’s writings about Nixon, and then read Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary for him and you will get nothing like an accurate portrait of the man, but you will discover levels of polarization you didn’t know existed.)
There’s been a lot of writing about Nixon one the occasion of his centennial earlier this week. It’s not at all like the adulation given President Reagan when his came two years ago. But in the end, I think Nixon was a far more significant figure. Whether for good or ill I don’t quite know.
But let me give Nixon himself the last word. From his 1974 Farewell address:
We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever.
Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.
And so I say to you on this occasion, as we leave, we leave proud of the people who have stood by us and worked for us and served this country.
We want you to be proud of what you have done. We want you to continue to serve in government, if that is your wish. Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.