Americans never seem to tire of Richard Nixon, the man who strode the nation’s political stage for three decades, as congressman, senator, vice president and president, only to see his career come crashing down when his involvement in the Watergate scandal led to his resignation – the only U.S. president to so step down – in order to avoid certain impeachment.
More than thirty-seven years after he left office and eighteen years after his passing, Nixon’s legacy is still debated more intensely than that of most other presidents. The flood of articles and books on Nixon – on his psyche, his image, his politics, even the movies he watched and what they tell us about him and his era – shows no sign of abating anytime soon.
In 2008 the big political book of the year was Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, a nearly 900-page opus that endeavored to explain how Nixon put his stamp on the nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This month Nixon is back in the news with the publication of an entirely different kind of book, the gossipy Nixon’s Darkest Secrets by former radio reporter Don Fulsom.
Love him or hate him (and it’s sometimes difficult to remember that despite his indisputable dark side and the fear and revulsion he inspired in millions, an uncountable number of his countrymen supported him with an almost unquenchable passion), Nixon in death has remained every bit the intriguing figure he was in life. And with the passage of time – and the revelation that presidents before Nixon had engaged in many of the same activities that ultimately brought him down – the old antipathies may have softened, if only a bit.
Some, like Ben Stein, a young Nixon speechwriter who went on to make a lucrative Hollywood career for himself as one of the more recognizable faces (and voices) on television and in movies, has never wavered in his defense of Nixon.
“Can anyone,” Stein has asked, “even remember now what Nixon did that was so terrible?…. Does anyone remember what he did that was bad? Oh, now I remember. He lied. He was a politician who lied. How remarkable. He lied to protect his subordinates who were covering up a ridiculous burglary that no one to this date has any clue about its purpose. He lied so he could stay in office and keep his agenda of peace going. That was his crime…. He was a peacemaker. He was a lying, conniving, covering up peacemaker. He was not a lying, conniving drug addict like JFK, a lying, conniving war starter like LBJ, a lying, conniving seducer like Clinton….”
Even a liberal like the iconoclastic writer Nicholas von Hoffman was already having second thoughts about Nixon not long after he left the White House: “In the months since [Nixon’s] departure, his defense looks better. Half a dozen Congressional committees have brought forth volumes of information all adducing that the break-ins, the [phone] tapping, snooping and harassment have been routine government activities for at least a generation.”
There has also been much rethinking, in the decades since Nixon’s resignation, of the journalistic techniques popularized by the Washington Post reporters who made their careers on Watergate, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Watergate, according to liberal Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley, “created a model of journalism that is easily abused and debased. It created generations of people trying to replicate that role by digging in more and more unsavory ways. As much as Watergate is a model of the journalism that we admire, you can also see in it the origins of the distrust we have today.”
Former Nixon speechwriter Ray Price wrote that “It was Nixon’s misfortune to be in office when both ‘advocacy journalism’ and the notion that the media should be ‘adversary’ to the government enjoyed their greatest modern-day vogue.”
The late Vernon Walters, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1970s, was more direct: “[T]he idea of this man [Nixon] winning the largest number of electoral votes since George Washington…this drove the media absolutely insane; they had to get rid of him. It was not a professional thing with the media; it was an emotional thing….”