There is perhaps not a more incongruous scene in the history of American politics than the one that took place on August 9, 1974. Overlooking a crowd of somber-looking White House staffers, the outgoing president, Richard Milhous Nixon, waved goodbye. Amid distant applause, Nixon gave a booming smile and thrust both hands upward, raising his index and middle fingers and parting them — the “V” sign, meaning victory. To watch Nixon without any context is to see what seems to be a triumphant leader. The pained and melancholic looks of everyone else say something else entirely.
The Nixon presidency is a difficult one to evaluate. Analyzed with a certain amount of detachment, one can begin to see the makings of a successful presidency. Nixon famously went to China and the Soviet Union, opening up trade relations with the former and inaugurating a period of detente with the latter. For those of a more liberal persuasion, he proposed the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act. However haltingly (and immorally), he ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. He ended the military draft and supported the 26th Amendment giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. He harnessed the populist and often racist rages of the white working class and former George Wallace supporters into a far more moderate position.
However, the reason most people look at Nixon’s presidency the way his staffers looked at him as he flew off in his helicopter could be summed up in one word: Watergate.
In some ways, this is unfair. The entire era was one for dirty tricks. The evidence for the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, while not completely convincing, may point to voter fraud in Illinois and Texas, giving JFK a tainted election victory in an insanely close election. In 1968, Richard Nixon clandestinely and illegally scuttled a potential peace plan in Vietnam in order to defeat Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey in the election, which President Lyndon Johnson only knew about because he had been illegally wiretapping the Nixon campaign’s phones. (The corruption, it burns!)
But while Nixon may not have been the only politician to get his hands dirty, he was certainly the dirtiest of them all. He created the Special Investigations Unit, better known as “The Plumbers,” meant to investigate a supposed conspiracy to leak foreign policy secrets, beginning with Daniel Ellsberg and the publication of the Pentagon Papers. He helped cover up the Watergate break-in. He lied to the FBI and the American people about it. This is without taking into account his dishonorable approach to ending the Vietnam War.
This is all well known. And yet, the level of his duplicitousness, the sheer brazenness of his administration’s abuse of power still shocks. His paranoia and corruption brought about a constitutional crisis, a national nightmare that, contra Gerald Ford’s pronouncement, we still live with in every corruption scandal, every semblance of abuse of power, and through ever-increasing executive power.
Nixon, the red-baiting conservative; Nixon, the surprising liberal; Nixon, the squishy moderate. No one label seems to stick to RN, save the one he told the American people did not apply to him: Richard Nixon was a crook.