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Remembering Nixon's Vision


By Stephen E. Frank

The staff's cruel indictment of Richard Milhous Nixon on his funeral day gives short shrift to the lasting accomplishments and profound impact of America's 37th president. Today, as the nation bids him farewell, we should remember President Nixon as a man who, perhaps more than any other in the past half century, helped to define our modern political life.

For most undergraduates, including the staff, this is easier said than done. Though the Watergate scandal pre-dates most of us, we know it well as the stuff of books and movies. And it is this, the sinister side of Richard Nixon, that has had a powerful effect on our generation, shaping our impressions of the scandals we ourselves have lived through--Iran-Contra, Iraq-gate and Whitewater.

This reaction is natural, for Watergate changed the nation's attitude toward its government. Together with the Vietnam War--which Nixon, ironically, ended--Watergate stole the innocence of a once-trusting electorate. The presidency, once idolized, was humanized; the nation's chief executive became fallible, its voters, cynics. Before Watergate, Americans believed before we doubted; now we doubt until we are given reason to believe.

All of this is especially surprising considering Watergate's negligible importance as an incident. A bungled burglary of Democratic party offices during an election Nixon would almost certainly have won anyway, Watergate didn't involve the covert diversion of government funds from one source to another, or the illegal sales of weapons to rebel forces in other nations.

To be sure, Nixon handled the incident miserably, abusing the powers of his office in a failed effort to cover it up. This is where he erred. Ironically, he could have probably weathered the scandal had he simply come forward in the first place, admitted what he knew and when he knew it, and apologized. It's a lesson with which other political leaders, including President Bill Clinton, are still struggling.

But it would be a terrible mistake if Nixon's otherwise remarkable career were to be judged by this one, unfortunate period. As members of the first post-Watergate generation, we owe much to the leader who resigned office just as we were born.

As the staff notes only cursorily, we owe Richard Nixon the detente of the '70s, which made the world a safer place in which to live and paved the way for a series of arms-reduction treaties between the United States and the former Soviet Union. We owe him relations with China, along with associated economic benefits to both nations and the increased leverage America now wields with China. Finally, we owe Nixon credit for opening the doors to the Camp David accords of 1979, which created peace between Israel and Egypt.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Richard Nixon was among the greatest foreign policy presidents of this century.

But, while Nixon's greatest impact as president was his international statesmanship, he deserves credit for his innovations on the domestic front as well. In addition to the welfare reform and universal health care proposals mentioned by the staff, Nixon was the first president to take a stand on the environment, launching the Environmental Protection Agency and supporting the passage of several major pieces of environmental legislation in the early 1970s

Finally, Nixon deserves our thanks for the sage foreign policy advice he offered to presidents and world leaders after he left office and virtually up until the day he was stricken last week.

Today, as we remember America's 37th president, we should remember him less for his faults and failures and more for his vision and achievements. Richard Nixon was not a saint. But as it is, he did much for which we should be grateful.

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