Richard Nixon would have turned 100 Wednesday, and his old friends will gather at a hotel near the White House to toast the memory of the 37th president. What is not said also will say much about his evolving legacy, because no protesters or seething Nixon-haters are expected outside the doors.
Nixon left the White House arguably the most polarizing political figure of his generation, the only president ever to resign the office, one whose very name instilled passion and even hatred. History is now his judge, and scholars are finding him a complex, even ironic figure.
His imprint on foreign policy is unmistakable. He opened China, promoted detente with the Soviet Union, took important steps to calm Middle East tension and signed a historic strategic arms limitation treaty.
His mark on domestic policy also endures.
“The irony was, he was the last liberal president,” says Stephen Hess, who worked on domestic affairs in the first Nixon administration. Under Nixon, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, affirmative action expanded, wage and price controls imposed and more funds were pumped into education.
None of that usually appears at the start of any Nixon biography. He was the chief instigator and victim of the Watergate scandal, which consumed America for nearly two years and fueled a cynicism about American politics and government that still poisons attitudes today.
To his foes, Nixon was forever the rabid communist hunter, the dirty trickster who would use any tactic to win.
“Nixon just proved everything we had suspected about him over time,” said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.
Unlike so many of today’s politicians, he was unable to smooth over his rough edges with charm. He was the awkward loner in a new age of telegenic candidates.
Pale and nervous, he was a sharp contrast to the tanned and rested John F. Kennedy in their first 1960 debate, a night that boosted Kennedy and changed American politics. Nixon tried to come back, running for California governor in 1962. He still could not escape his image, as he lost and pledged, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Yet he came back as the “new Nixon,” winning a bitter three-way race for the White House in 1968 as the center-right choice. Any hope of governing as a statesman evaporated instantly, as Nixon found himself presiding over a nation gravely divided over the Vietnam War and terrified by urban violence.
The five and a half years of the Nixon presidency were full of ironies. Opponents insisted he wasn’t withdrawing American troops fast enough from Vietnam and instead had expanded the war by invading Cambodia, sparking massive protests that occasionally turned deadly. He also pushed for an all-volunteer military and ended the draft in 1973.
He was the mastermind of the “Southern strategy” – breaking the Democratic grip on the South by preaching law and order and subtly suggesting lax support for further civil rights legislation – that would, with a few exceptions, help Republicans gain control of Southern politics to this day. He tried and failed to appoint Southern conservatives Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. He ran twice with Maryland’s Spiro Agnew, who had gained national attention for telling state black leaders they were “intimidated by veiled threats” from radicals.
More irony: Nixon retained a sizable following in the African-American community, which had historic ties to Republicans dating from the age of Abraham Lincoln and which remembered Nixon’s support for voting rights legislation. Nixon won 18 percent of the black vote in 1972, a figure no Republican White House candidate has reached since.
He won a 49-state landslide that year, the great divider winning a nearly unprecedented majority, yet he would never be able to unite the nation.
The 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party’s Watergate headquarters triggered the unspooling of intricate, sometimes amateurish, sometimes criminal plots to embarrass and defang enemies. Little by little, the revelations poured out during 1973 and 1974: enemies lists, break-ins, misuse of government agencies, cover-ups.
Nixon admitted no wrongdoing in his Aug. 8, 1974, resignation speech. When Gerald Ford took office the next day, he solemnly declared, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
Nixon’s role in that nightmare remains the nation’s most vivid memory of him ever since. “You can’t cover the Watergate blemish with makeup,” said veteran political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
In Washington, the newly emboldened Congress, having helped bring down a president, became more assertive, making the Washington process somewhat messier but also somewhat more transparent. Jimmy Carter struggled to win approval of a comprehensive energy program; Ronald Reagan had to rely on Democrats to win approval of his signature tax cut plan in 1981.
Nixon died in 1994. Seven presidents have served in the office since he resigned. History is starting to give Nixon a fresh, more dispassionate look, and Wednesday night, his loyalists will try to give the experts a push.
They’ll offer reminders like that of Robert Bostock, a former Nixon aide and co-curator of the centennial exhibit at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.
“His greatest legacy is that he left the world a safer and more peaceful place, and he appreciated the difference government could make in the lives of average Americans,” Bostock said. “He knew how to get things done.”