Earlier this year, many in the media celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Celebrate is not too strong a word for the self-congratulatory outpouring from reporters and commentators, many of whom saw themselves as the last bastion of defense of our very freedoms against the Nixon administration’s onslaught. And there is no doubt that, had he not resigned in 1974, Richard Nixon rightly would have been impeached and removed from office as a result of his clear and pernicious crimes.
However, as we look back after four decades, it’s time to recognize a Richard Nixon that too many people overlook: a strange, awkward, self-hating man who transformed America—and the world—in ways that only the greatest leaders could dream of.
Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 is his most dramatic achievement—one that even his most dedicated enemies will grant him. Only a fierce anti-Communist like Nixon could have had the political capital to reverse decades of American foreign policy overnight; and only a wise foreign-policy strategist could have guaranteed that this reversal would be permanent. But Nixon’s domestic accomplishments probably have a greater effect on our lives, and just listing some of them make the point: the Philadelphia Plan and the Affirmative Action legislation that guaranteed employment rights to minorities and women; the Equal Rights Amendment; the Title IX Act, which revolutionized women’s sports; and the Environmental Protection Act; the Clean Air Act; and establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. His proposal to revolutionize healthcare coverage would have been far-reaching and comprehensive—40 years before Obamacare. Ted Kennedy said his worst mistake was opposing Nixon’s health plan for political reasons.
Historian Robert Caro’s great biographies of Lyndon Johnson have done much to make new generations understand LBJ’s complexities—this corrupt, foul-mouthed bully who simultaneously brought America the blessing of civil rights along with the evil of the Vietnam War. Surely it is time for a gifted writer to illuminate our most Shakespearian president: Richard Nixon—a man of outstanding ability and accomplishment who went to great lengths to record his most secret, shameful, private thoughts and deeds; and who, by refusing to destroy those tapes, ensured his own destruction.
The opinions expressed in “The Contrarian View” do not represent those of The Saturday Evening Post.