Details about the Watergate scandal are still emerging, almost forty years after the botched burglary and subsequent cover-up consumed the presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon. Earlier this month, Nixon’s grand jury testimony fromthe Watergate trial was finally released, as per judicial mandate. Obviously, Nixon’s legacy will always be marred by the Watergate scandal and the subsequent revelations about his use of presidential power to punish his political enemies.
This is just. His administration misused the great power it was handed; his cover-up and handling of the Watergate scandal (including the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which he fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate), and his resignation amid impeachment proceedings led to national trauma and constitutional crisis.
Yet, it is important to remember Nixon’s other legacies as well. Somewhere behind that iconic scowl was the vulnerable boy who watched two of his brothers die young, who felt guilty because his college education was paid for with money that had been earmarked for his dead brother’s medical care.
Nixon surely could not compete with John F. Kennedy’s sex appeal, but his courting of Pat Nixon is a lesson in loyalty and determination. Certain that Pat was he soul mate, he withstood her initial rebuffs, and even drove her to dates with other boys, before he was finally given his own chance.
His friendship with John F. Kennedy is often underplayed. The two were elected to Congress in the same year, and held similar views: both internationalists, both determined to confront communism, both skeptical of the New Deal. The Kennedy family covertly contributed $1,000 to Nixon’s senate campaign, and both JFK and his father, Joe Kennedy, said they would vote Nixon in 1960 if Kennedy was not on the Democratic ticket.
Despite contrary appearances, Kennedy was in poor health most of his life, and was administered the Catholic Church’s last rites several times. When it seemed Kennedy would pass away in the 1950s, Nixon cried for the imminent loss of his friend.
Of course, Nixon and Kennedy were also quite different — and the vicious 1960 election marked a sharp end to their friendship. Nixon, like many of his supporters thought that Kennedy had stolen the election through fraudulent ballots. Kennedy seemed to be everything Nixon loved and loathed, all in one. Kennedy was a wealthy “elite,” unlike the working class Nixon. He was smart, sexy, and media-savvy. These things were anathema to Nixon. The Whittier College grad distrusted the ‘Ivy Leaguers’ and their ‘elite clubs’ as much as he distrusted a media he was always certain was out to destroy his reputation and career.
And Kennedy was loved. That seems to be what Nixon longed for: he wanted the respect and the love of the America people. After the National Guard killed several people at Kent State, Nixon made an impromptu visit to student protesters camped at the Lincoln Memorial in the dead of night. He spoke to the unimpressed crowd at length about what he was trying to accomplish for America, about improving race relations and, when that failed, about college football.
Despite his frustration at the protestors that he claimed ‘weakened’ America’s position abroad and caused (again, in his view) unnecessary conflict at home, Nixon nevertheless seems to have desired their approval and love.
He felt as if he had earned them. After all, Nixon took the reins of the presidency during the most unpopular war in American history and earnestly wanted to draw the war to a close. In 1960, he considered pulling the troops out of Vietnam over the next year and a half, though Kissinger talked him out of it. He reached out to the North Vietnamese for peace talks, though in the end he kept the United States snarled in the Vietnam War while doggedly pursuing his “peace with honor.”
He pushed for a volunteer army, rather than a draft. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He created the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for the elderly and disabled. He proposed universal health care. He opened up diplomatic relations with communist China, while his political allies howled at home. He pursued detente with the Soviet Union.
Nixon truly believed he was a man of the people; he saw himself as the spokesman for the “Silent Majority.”
We should not overlook, nor excuse, his failures. Clearly, Watergate and the misuse of executive power had a profound effect on the country. But neither should we ignore his successes. In the end, Nixon was neither the bloodthirsty villain his opponents decried, nor the perpetual victim he claimed to be. The truth, as always, was far more nuanced.