Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, died on April 22, 1994. News reporters and analysts were not sure what to say about him. Many of them had spent their entire careers explaining to the audiences how bad a man he was. They compared every person they did not like to Richard Nixon. Suddenly, they had to decide whether or not to honor the axiom that they “should speak no ill of the dead.” Those who have just died deserve a brief time of respect and honor, even if they should be named Richard Nixon.
Nixon is the first American President I can remember. As a child, I thought well of him. I guess my family and I were part of that “silent majority” of Americans who trusted Nixon and agreed with him. He became president during turbulent times. He campaigned on a theme of Law and Order. He promised Peace with Honor in Vietnam. He hoped to be remembered as a peacemaker.
As a writer and teacher of history, I often take the effort needed to correct misperceptions many people have about Nixon. He did not expand the Vietnam War—he attacked the enemy where they were hiding. He did not plan the Watergate break-in, but he did make the mistake of trying to hide any connection between his advisors and employees and the crime. Nixon was not bad for America, even though the Watergate scandal was a national nightmare. On this anniversary of his death, I would like to say a few words in praise of the man. (In some later posts, I can address Vietnam and Watergate in more detail.)
Nixon felt that the president’s primary job was dealing with other nations and their leaders. He assumed that improved foreign relations would be his legacy. Nixon opened the doors to China. He negotiated important agreements with the Soviet Union. He maintained good relations with our allies and drew more nations into that group—notably Egypt, which drove out its Soviet advisors and welcomed Nixon’s visit. Nixon understood why we were struggling to prevail in the Cold War, when the issues between two ways of life should have been obvious. “The Communists talk about the problems,” he often said, “but we just talk about the Communists.”
Nixon’s legacy in foreign affairs overshadows his many important achievements within the United States. Awareness of environmental issues expanded during his presidency. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came into being at that time. More minority workers were hired by the federal government under Nixon than ever before. Nixon proposed universal health care for all Americans. He also proposed a “negative income tax,” which would give working Americans and their families financial support through the tax system. (That idea was eventually enacted in the 1980s as the Earned Income Tax Credit.)
I would never say that Richard Nixon was flawless. Others have written that it was his flaws that made greatness available to him. Nixon sincerely wanted to make life better for all Americans. He sincerely wanted to make the world a safer place for all people. He sincerely believed that he was pursuing these goals in the right way. It bothers me that he took opposition so personally, essentially inviting those who disagreed with him to end up hating him. But Richard Nixon was a man driven to do the right thing, a man who rose to greatness and was humbled by pettiness. I remember him as a good but troubled man, and I agree with Henry Kissinger—history will be kinder to President Nixon and his reputation than were his contemporaries.