Most American presidents' reputations improve after they leave office. In the warm light of history, once-derided chief executives seem to gain retroactive stature.
The most vivid example is Harry Truman, who left the White House during the
But not Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon, who resigned 40 years ago Saturday, has somehow managed the opposite feat: A generation after his departure, he looks even worse.
"Emerson said that in time, every scoundrel becomes a hero, but that hasn't been true with Nixon," presidential historian Robert Dallek told me last week.
Whenever pollsters ask Americans who our worst presidents have been, Nixon is high in the running. Yes, a poll last month found
What's the secret of Nixon's unpopularity?
He mostly has himself to thank. Not only did he order
There are the offhand racial and ethnic slurs: "Most Jews are disloyal…. The Irish can't drink…. The Italians, of course, just don't have their heads screwed on tight." Mexican Americans "steal; they're dishonest … [but] they do have a concept of family life. They don't live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like."
But even before all that bigotry surfaced, the tapes helped convict Nixon (in the court of public opinion) of the crimes of Watergate in 1974. Successive releases have only made his culpability clearer.
"The tapes show how ugly he could be, his paranoia," Dallek said. "It was a classic case of psychological projection: I manipulate and scheme, and everyone else must be like me."
Here's another excerpt from 1971, in which Nixon rages about the "mythology" that grew around his assassinated predecessor,
"We have created no mythology," Nixon complained. "For Christ's sakes, can't we get across the courage more? Courage, boldness, guts! Goddamn it! That is the thing…. Don't you agree, Henry?"
But it's not only the tapes.
Aside from Watergate — a gigantic "aside" — Nixon's presidency wasn't a failure. In domestic policy, he established the Environmental Protection Agency and administered the court-ordered desegregation of Southern schools. In foreign policy, he pursued nuclear arms control with the Soviet Union and, of course, opened a strategic relationship with communist China.
But Nixon's legacy has been orphaned, even — especially — in his own Republican Party. In the wake of Nixon's fall, GOP conservatives repudiated his big-government solutions and made Reagan, a small-government man, their champion and ideal.
Even in foreign affairs, where Nixon's accomplishments were undeniable, his cold-blooded realism fell into disrepute. The tapes haven't helped on that count either. Here's Nixon as he orders new airstrikes against North Vietnam in 1972: "Punish them. And, incidentally, I wouldn't be worried about a little slop-over.... Knock off a few villages and hamlets."
Nixon's most durable legacy, alas, may be the heightened cynicism and partisanship that has infected both parties ever since. "Nixon's betrayal of the public trust fueled a general cynicism and antagonism that people have felt toward presidents and the federal government ever since," Dallek told me.
And, surely without intending to, Nixon helped make the threat of impeachment a recurring feature of congressional debate. In 1998, Clinton was impeached (and acquitted) over his attempt to cover up his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. And legislators have called for the impeachment at various times of both presidents George W. Bush and Obama.
The difference, of course, is that Nixon's impeachment was a bipartisan affair; it was Republicans who pushed him out of office, not Democrats. RN was ready to hang on and fight until Republican leaders in
That's why it's worth looking back at Nixon's fall from this vantage point, 40 years later. In honor of the anniversary, a crop of new books has appeared, including "The Nixon Tapes," an excellent collection edited by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter, and "The Nixon Defense," a day-by-day chronicle of Watergate by former White House counsel John W. Dean.
The volumes are enormous and depressing — but still worth reading. Anyone old enough to remember the lugubrious cadences of Nixon's speech will find them strangely addictive. And anyone born after 1960 should at least take a look — to find out what real abuse of power and a real constitutional crisis look like.