Fifty years ago, America’s most brilliant and troubled politician became its 37th president

By Steve Paikin - Published on February 19, 2019
lobby of the Richard Nixon museum in California
The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in Yorba Linda, California, was dedicated on July 19, 1990. (Steve Paikin)

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Richard Milhous Nixon has always fascinated me.

He’s the first American president whose time in office I can really remember. Ever since the days that I dashed home from school in the early 1970s to watch the televised Senate Watergate Committee hearings, I have wondered how America’s 37th president could have turned out to be such a complicated mixture of brilliance, paranoia, and corruption.

On November 5, 1968, Nixon won one of the closest presidential elections ever, barely besting the sitting vice-president, Hubert Humphrey (Nixon received 43.4 per cent of the popular vote to Humphrey’s 42.7 per cent). There were 73 million votes cast, but only half a million separated the Republican victor from his Democratic rival.

It was 50 years ago last month that Nixon assumed the presidency. He had an astonishingly ambitious agenda, both domestically and internationally. And Americans apparently liked it enough (and disliked his re-election opponent Senator George McGovern so much) that Nixon had little problem winning a second term: in 1972, he captured 49 states, leaving McGovern just one (plus the District of Columbia).

Last week, for the first time, I visited the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in Yorba Linda, California. For Nixon aficionados, the museum is a must-see. You’ll see the small home Nixon was born in and hear about his impoverished upbringing. Two of Nixon’s three brothers died from illness before reaching adulthood. (Edward, the only surviving brother, is 88 and lives in the Seattle area.)

There are numerous exhibits chronicling Nixon’s political rise, which began when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946. Also elected that year was John F. Kennedy, who, like Nixon, would later become a senator. The two would cross paths throughout their careers. Nixon served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice-president starting in 1953; Kennedy came up just short when he sought to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate for the 1956 election. In 1960, Nixon and Kennedy faced off against each other for the presidency, which Kennedy narrowly won. The election campaign featured the first televised presidential debates. (Eerily enough, Nixon, out of politics and a private businessman, happened to be in Dallas on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated.)

Nixon’s time as president featured some of America’s most important achievements. Although the period was characterized by dangerous sabre-rattling with the Soviet Union, Nixon signed an agreement with the U.S.S.R. limiting the production of nuclear weapons — the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, or SALT.

Nixon shocked the world when, in 1972, he visited China and put an end to a quarter-century of diplomatic isolation. The event gave us a famous expression, often quoted when other unimaginable breakthroughs take place: “Only Nixon could go to China.” The first handshake between Nixon and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is immortalized at the presidential library.

There’s also a wing dedicated to Nixon’s “Vietnamization” of the war in southeast Asia — a war that ultimately claimed 58,000 American soldiers’ lives. When Nixon became president 50 years ago, more than half a million U.S. soldiers were half a world away. While he took numerous controversial (and possibly illegal) steps to bring the war to an end (of which the bombing of Viet Cong supply routes in neighbouring Cambodia is perhaps the most notorious), Nixon did dramatically reduce America’s involvement in that conflict.

During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the U.S. supplied weapons to Israel. Without Nixon’s help, the Jewish state might have been overrun by the combined forces of Egypt and Syria.

Domestically, Nixon funded a war on cancer. He signed the bill that created the Environmental Protection Agency — something that members of today’s Republican Party might well have considered heretical. The Clean Air Act and the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration were among Nixon’s other accomplishments.

The presidential library and museum is also filled with gifts that Nixon received over the years — from the pistol and bullets that Elvis Presley gave him during his bizarre White House visit in 1970, to the baseball bat with which superstar Willie Mays walloped his 600th home run in 1969, to an Inuit carving and autographed picture from his Canadian counterpart, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom Nixon famously called “that asshole,” prompting the prime minister to utter: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”

But after touring the museum for a few hours and seeing accomplishment after accomplishment, one finally arrives at the exhibit farthest from the entrance — the exhibit that tells the story of Nixon’s political demise.

The museum makes no attempt to downplay the burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel or the subsequent cover-up. There are endless videos to watch and transcripts of the Oval Office audio tapes to peruse (nearly five decades later, they’re still shocking). The President of the United States sounds like a mob boss when he orders the firebombing of the Brookings Institution and spits out anti-Semitic slurs about the Jews who work in his administration.

There may be no more iconic image in modern American history than that of Nixon atop the stairs of his Marine One helicopter, waving farewell to his successor, Gerald R. Ford, and to the rest of the White House staff. That helicopter is on the grounds of the museum, and if you are a student of American history, you cannot help but feel conflicted when you mount those same steps. How could such a brilliant man, who had overcome so much to reach the peak of American politics, be toppled by his own paranoia? Hundreds of books have been written about Nixon, but I still find myself shaking my head at this particular question.

In his post-presidential life, Nixon did manage to stage something of a political resurrection. He wrote 10 books after leaving office. Every subsequent president called on him for his expertise in foreign affairs, right up until his death, in 1994, at age 81.

For people of a certain generation, Nixon will first and foremost be remembered as the only commander-in-chief (so far) to have resigned the presidency. Ironically, at Nixon’s funeral, it was left to a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to offer the following admonition, which is emblazoned on one wall at the museum’s entrance, to future generations: “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”

For those who wish to fulfill that mission, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum is a great place to start.

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