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Rest in Peace, Mr. President


By John S. Gardner

Now, more than ever, the world will miss Richard Milhous Nixon.

It was with some sadness that I read in The Crimson that many Harvard students were not really affected by President Richard M. Nixon's death ("Student's React Lightly to News of Nixon's Death," news article, April 26, 1994). I understand why, because most students have no memory of his administration. But since I'm a little older than most undergraduates or even graduate students here, I wanted to share some recollections of Nixon, from someone who remembers Apollo II'' signs in supermarkets. Some of this you probably didn't get in school.

First a surprising fact: Richard Nixon received more votes for national office than anyone else in American history--more than Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, more than Ronald Reagan. He was nominated five times for national office by a major party--a record equaled only by FDR.

Yes, there was Watergate. But why judge Nixon according to one standard, and other presidents on another? Nor should Watergate overshadow Nixon's very real and lasting accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy.

His domestic reforms were far-reaching. He founded the Environmental Protection Agency--one of the world's first government agencies devoted exclusively to safeguarding the environment. He passed the Clean Air Act. He started the War on Cancer. He helped the elderly and disabled by indexing Social Security payments to the cost of living. He was pro-choice; Nixon appointees provided the majority in Roe v. Wade.

He was progressive on civil rights. William Safire tells the story of how a staffer approached the President some what sheepishly to suggest that he endorse home rule for the District of Columbia. Nixon responded: "Hell, I've been for home rule since 1946!"

"Pulling a Nixon goes to China" is almost a stock phrase in the political culture. It's easy to lose sight of just how important the trip was, both for the course of world affairs and in the American mind. I remember the fascination as the cameras panned across the airport in Peking (as it then was), and Americans peered into a land few of them had seen in a quarter century.

The trip to China was a strategic gambit of vast importance. At the depth of the Cold War, Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai saw how china and America could work together. America's involvement with china strengthened the hand of those who sought to turn away from the excesses of Maoism, including Zhou's heir, Den Xiaoping. Almost until the time of his death, Nixon sought to do what he could to maintain good relations between these two great nations.

Nixon's policy of detente with the Soviet Union led to a focus on arms control and human rights, which bore full fruit in the SALT treaty and the Helsinki accords signed under President Gerald R. Ford. Nixon's skilful diplomacy prevented the occupation of the Mideast by Soviet troops in 1973.

And in Israel's darkest hour, Richard Nixon, heedless of the consequences, ordered the Defense Department, over their objection, to start a 24-hour-a-day emergency airlift which Prime Minister Golda Meir claimed was invaluable in turning the tide of the battle, Only the Portuguese and the Dutch supported him (Prime Minister Heath refused the use of British airbases), but his resolve did not waiver. And the consequences were severe: the oil embargo, doubling of gasoline prices and a fall in the polls from which he never recovered. But President Nixon had the satisfaction of doing what was right.

He learned hardship early in life with the death of one brother and the debilitating illness of another. Oh, yes--he was admitted to Harvard, but he couldn't afford to come. He later met Harvard, through a government professor, Henry Kissinger '50.

President Nixon was fond of British history. So it is fitting to close by paraphrasing the famous comment about Robert Peel written by one of Nixon's favorite historians, Sir Norman Gash. The analogy is overbroad, but the sentiment is entirely accurate: he brought China into the modern world, and his political opponents herded him out of office. As America enters a new and dangerous phase in world affairs, we will miss President Nixon, perhaps now more than ever.

Requiescat in pace.

John S. Gardner '84, a former editor of The Crimson, is a second-year student at the Law School.

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