On October 20, 1973, Richard Nixon ordered the dismissal of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox '34, who had been conducting the Watergate investigation. Taking control of the Justice Department after Attorney General Elliot Richardson '41 resigned in protest, he ordered all offices of the investigation sealed.
In the wake of the "Saturday Night Massacre," America feared that the Nixon White House had run amok. The House began impeachment proceedings only months later. And The Crimson inveighed at the time against Nixon for "gross violations of law and public trust" as well as "an atmosphere in which his agents would inevitably confuse their master's instructions with the law."
Today, as Richard Milhous Nixon is laid the rest, it is time to remember the man as he was in life, not as the myth which President Bill Clinton and the press have been trying to portray this week. This fairy-tale of Nixon--as a man with an indomitable spirit, whose stunning political comebacks and foreign policy successes are unparalleled--is a farce.
While the press have viewed Nixon in perhaps too glowing a light, he does deserve respect on his funeral day as a former president who had numerous foreign and domestic policy successes. Before condemning the 37th president, we must examine his achievements.
Nixon ushered in the era of detente and more congenial superpower relations, which led successfully to strategic arms reduction. He re-established political and economic ties with China, providing a basis conducive to future economic and social agreement between the two states. On the domestic front, he introduced proposals for welfare reform and universal health care, issues which are still being debated 20 years later. And after he left office Nixon was an ardent advocate of peace who encouraged the development and integration of the former Soviet republics into world politics and economics.
But Nixon was a man wholly consumed by politics. he did everything he could to gain power and hold on to it, particularly after his close loss to John F. Kennedy '40 in 1960. Nixon told David Frost in 1977 that he had "let down the country," only to tell him later, "if the president does it, that means it is not illegal." He was a man with a purely political soul, whose struggle for survival and stature defined and defeated him.
He ran on a promise of "peace with honor" in 1968, but during his first term as president, he only intensified the Vietnam War. and as Nixon announced the end of the war in 1973, garnering support for his peacemaking efforts, he approved a campaign of secret bombings in Cambodia--expanding the war to another country just as peace, with or without honor, was at hand. Nixon's utter refusal to end these secret horrors of Vietnam cost hundreds of American and Vietnamese lives. These were not hellish, unavoidable consequences of war; they were illegal, immoral activities hidden from public view, the very acts which Clinton protested at the time and now hypocritically overlooks.
Nixon applied the realpolitik which Henry Kissinger '50 preached in foreign policy matters against his enemies at home. The "bunker mentality" of the Nixon White house was reinforced by a nexus of illegal espionage and sabotage operations against citizens on Nixon's "Enemies List." When Daniel Ellsberg '52 released the Pentagon Papers, Nixon's men bugged his psychiatrist's office to "neutralize" him. Where other presidents might have settled for damage control, Nixon, again, broke the law.
Those in the media who disagreed with him were subject to the withering, vicious criticism of press secretaries, the vice president and Nixon himself, Nixon's rhetoric was always aimed at dividing the nation, instilling bitterness and frustration in a people asking for healing. He betrayal of the American electorate may have receded from the memories of some who lived through it. But for those of us who grew up in Waterdate's shadow, it has defined our political consciousness. Nixon's legacy to our generation has been a lasting cynicism and suspicion of the American political system. No reassessment of his record, however carefully formulated, can change that.