How does one write a fair summary of Richard Nixon? Having resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal, he forever tainted whatever legacy he might have had. But then only Nixon could go to China, and he did. A Republican, he proposed universal healthcare, sounded the alarm over dependence on foreign oil, and achieved a thaw in the Cold War.
So was Nixon really that bad? After all, he was “Tricky Dick.” Actually, the name stems from his 1950 primary campaign against actress Helen Gahagan Douglas for Senate. Douglas, not the shrewdest of politicians, actually ran a dirtier campaign than Nixon and invented the “Tricky Dick” nickname in reference to his 1946 victory over Orange County Congressman Jerry Voorhis. In all honesty, Voorhis had never faced anything but token opposition until Nixon ran.
On the one hand, Nixon is seen as a foreign policy genius, and his expertise formed the basis of his role as an elder statesman in his later years. But early in his career, he jumped on the red-baiting bandwagon early, joining the House Un-American Activities Committee. For this, many people paint him with the same brush as Senator Joseph McCarthy. Ironically, one of Nixon’s tasks as vice president was to basically pat McCarthy on the head, tell him Ike brooked no commies in his administration, and quietly push the senator out of the spotlight as his excesses eroded his power. Nixon was a genuine anti-communist (which did not endear him to the left in the 1960′s); McCarthy was a drunken fear-monger.
What keeps Nixon from ranking in the upper echelon of presidents is Watergate and his behavior leading up to it. He wasn’t the first president to use questionable wiretaps on enemies. That honor goes to Franklin Roosevelt. And he did not have the most corrupt staff of the twentieth century; you can give that crown to Warren Harding. But Nixon destroyed all the goodwill he built up when he became paranoid about leaks. Every administration has them, and every administration deals with them in a manner the average citizen might not consider ethical. However, when former aide Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, Nixon commissioned “the plumbers,” a group of operatives who functioned essentially as burglars tasked with getting dirt on Nixon’s enemies. Even then, Nixon might have saved himself a lot of grief by appointing a disinterested third party to deal with the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel (hence the name “Watergate.”) Instead, Nixon’s paranoia and self-destructive tendencies kicked in, and Nixon soon found himself almost synonymous with what he himself dubbed “a third-rate burglary.” In the tapes that ultimately unraveled his presidency, Nixon says, “It’s not the crime that gets you. It’s the cover-up.” By that point, the cover-up had already involved several instances of obstruction of justice, including attempting to get the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation.
Sometimes, it seems as though Nixon and America might have been better off if he had won the presidency in 1960 instead of 1968. But the self-destructive streak showed itself when he lost the California governor’s race to Pat Brown when he lashed out at the press and said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Some suggest, and it’s probably true, that Nixon had an inferiority complex as a graduate of an unknown Quaker college in Whittier, California, when moving amongst the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton grads who dominated (and still dominate) Washington. Never mind that Nixon was one of the top graduates of Duke University’s first law class. What ultimately destroyed Nixon was that, unlike his predecessors or most of his successors, he could not enjoy power once he attained it. FDR, Johnson, and Reagan all had huge egos that fed on the Oval Office, but it enabled them to accomplish much. The White House battered Nixon’s ego badly, which doomed him to a slow political suicide.