Richard M. Nixon: The Transformation from Disgraced President to Senior Statesman have chosen a plan for peace for Vietnam. I believe it will succeed. If it does succeed, what the critics say now won't matter. If it does not succeed, anything I say then won't matter. - Richard M. Nixon, televised address to the nation, 1969
While no one would likely call America's long-term involvement in Vietnam as "success" by any measure, historians record that Richard Milhous Nixon set the stage for ending American's involvement in a war he did not start. Today, Nixon occupies a unique place in American history as both the only president to resign the office in disgrace (over the events surrounding the Watergate cover-up and the resulting scandal), as well as being the statesmanlike "foreign policy president" who opened relations with Red China and helped to guide the nation through the miasma that was Vietnam and the Sixties. This paper will provide an overview of Richard M. Nixon, followed by a review of past representations of Nixon together with more recent historical revisions of how his admirers and even his long-time critics have been willing to forgive and forget Nixon's domestic peccadilloes in favor of his more positive accomplishments on the foreign policy front. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. Richard Milhous Nixon was the 37th president of the United States from 1969 to 1974. Confronted with almost certain impeachment for his part in the Watergate Scandal, Nixon became the first American president to resign from office; he was also vice president (1953-1961) under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Richard Nixon 2004). While president, Nixon was responsible for the eventual U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and the normalization of relations with communist China; however, at home, his culpability in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal and the existence of a "slush fund" for political machinations during his reelection campaign of 1972 forced him to resign in 1974 when threatened with impeachment. Nixon was granted a presidential pardon by his appointee, Gerald R. Ford, but many critics suggested a connection even here.
Californian, Nixon first entered Congress in 1947, and rose to prominence during the McCarthyite era in America during the 1950s. As a member of the Un-American Activities Committee, he aggressively pursued the investigation of Alger Hiss who was accused of being a spy. Nixon was senator for California from 1951 until he was elected vice-president under Dwight D. Eisenhower (who reportedly did not particularly like Nixon very well). Nixon ultimately played a more extensive role in government than previous vice-presidents, due in part because of the poor health of Eisenhower. Nixon narrowly lost the 1960 presidential election to J.F. Kennedy, partly because televised electoral debates put his at a disadvantage compared to the more charismatic and photogenic JFK (Miller 1999); however, Nixon lost to Kennedy by less than 120,000 popular votes (Richard Nixon 2004). White (1961) assured his readers, "It was the picture image that had done it -- and in 1960 television had won the nation away from sound to images, and that was that" (40). Yet, Nixon was not through and after retiring to his home in San Clemente, he wrote a best-selling book, Six Crises (1961). In 1962, he grudgingly agreed to run for governor of California; however, he lost to incumbent Democrat Edmund G. ("Pat") Brown. In his memorable post-election news conference, Nixon announced his first retirement from politics and attacked the media, proclaiming they would not "have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore." Nixon moved to New York City where he practiced law for the next few years, and created a reputation as being an expert in foreign affairs and a leader who could appeal to both moderates and conservatives in his party (Richard Nixon 2004). Nixon won the Republican nomination for president in 1968 and, with Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate, defeated Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey and third party candidate George Wallace Nixon for the presidency (Richard Nixon 2004).
Past Representations of Richard Nixon. During the 1950s, Richard Nixon learned how to become more persuasive in communicating his ideas to the American public, but the former president's visage did not particularly lend itself to the bright lights of television. Offering historical and experimental evidence, McGuckin concluded that Nixon was "reasonably successful" in persuading a significant portion of his audience during the 1950s. "Nixon enhanced his ethos and moved his audience by identifying with basic American cultural values, such as puritan morality, equality, patriotism, and courage" (McGuckin 1968:269). These early images would shift over the years, though, and the controversies the plagued the White House during the Nixon era tended to influence the president in unfavorable ways. According to Evans and Novak (1972), "Richard Nixon's personal reputation was that of a hard man, bordering on meanness. It was bolstered as stories leaked out of the inner sanctum of the White House about his intemperate attitude toward his greatest nemeses: liberal Republicans who did not support their President, and the press" (5). Indeed, by the height of the Watergate scandal, "Nixon-bashing" was not only easy to do, it just seemed like the right thing to do.
The country had experienced the enormously divisive effects of the Vietnam War for many years, and the polarizing effects of the war together with the Civil Rights Movement found the people of the United States in a near-revolutionary state. This was clearly not an easy time to be president, and Nixon found himself confronted with challenges and obstacles to his initiatives on virtually every front. According to Hal W. Bochin (1990), for 25 years, amidst some of the most difficult times that ever confronted the American public and political leadership. Amid the Cold War of the 1950s, the Vietnam War of the 1960s, and Watergate and the specter of presidential impeachment in the 1970s, Nixon "was at the eye of the maelstrom of political rhetoric, and in the end, like Herman Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, was consumed in the vortex of his own creation" (xi).
When Nixon boarded a helicopter outside the White House for the last time, turning to the nation and emphatically waving a defiant "V for Victory" sign, it represented the end of a drama that had been long in the making. According to Flippen (2000), Nixon's presidency had "begun with much hope, a call for unity, and a plea for moderation. He would, he promised, bring the nation together. Now, almost six years later, one was left to wonder where it all went wrong" (219). Several years after Nixon's resignation, a visitor to the former president's home at San Clemente reported that, it had not been an easy time for Nixon, who had been in virtual political exile. While President Ford had issued an unconditional pardon, a new challenge over the control of the Nixon's presidential papers was imminent and critics alleged that the pardon was part of a quid pro quo with Ford; they also complained that Nixon's memoirs and interviews allowed him to profit from his illegal acts. During this period, Nixon had also fought off a serious bout with phlebitis and a blood clot that threatened his life, only to have his beloved wife, Pat, suffer a stroke. His visitor, John Whitaker, recognized the need to cheer up his former boss. "Years from now," Whitaker observed, "it would not be Vietnam or foreign policy that people remembered about the Nixon administration, but rather its tremendous successes in domestic policy, most notably with regard to the environment. Even Nixon recognized that his foreign policy accomplishments represented his true legacy to the nation at this point and responded, "For God's sake, John, I hope that's not true" (Flippen 2000:220). With Vietnam and Watergate still fresh in the country's consciousness, the former president could not imagine environmental policy as representing the defining characteristic of his administration, much less as a point of pride. In fact, Nixon's transition from being "not a crook" to "senior statesman" appears to have been his final goal. According to Flippen (2000), Nixon rememberd his diplomatic accomplishments with a great deal of satisfaction. "Foreign policy had always been his first love and the area of his greatest expertise, in his mind the realm of his most significant accomplishments. To think that domestic policy -- so often an afterthought to him -- would overshadow all of this somehow diminished his historical importance" (220). Further, Nixon had no plans to simply retire to San Clemente and allow this to happen without doing something to prevent it. "He had one final task to accomplish: resurrecting his historical legacy from the sewer of scandal and resignation. 'Our day will come again,' he vowed to friends" (Flippen 2000:220). While Nixon undoubtedly was appreciative of his friend's comments, Flippen emphasizes that in planning his comeback, Nixon saw opportunity only in the role of elder statesman.
Contemporary Revisions. While the Nixon Administration will always be linked with the Watergate…