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RICHARD NIXON: 1913-1994 : A Will to Win Office, Respect

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“He wasn’t the kind of little boy you wanted to pick up and hug,” a cousin said of Richard Nixon. “He wasn’t the kind of guy you wanted to go backpacking with,” a college classmate recalled.

He was the kind of guy you voted for. There are men and women living in Whittier and Yorba Linda today who have voted for Nixon for President at least 20 times--in junior high, in high school, for various organizations and student government offices at Whittier College, for the Rotary and the Kiwanis and the Young Republicans and for the United States.

The greatest contradiction in this contradictory man is right here. He was a shy Quaker boy, incapable of small talk, awkward in his gesture, uncomfortable with people, the kid who, when they passed out the charm, said no thanks. Yet he went into politics and became the most successful and important American politician of the second half of the 20th Century.

Another contradiction. In his policies, Nixon was pragmatic, middle-of-the-road. He spoke to and for the middle-class from whence he came. Yet he provoked an extreme emotional response. His millions of supporters admired him without stint, while his millions of detractors hated him passionately--in many ways for the same reasons.

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A brief look at his California political campaigns makes this point. In 1946 in going after Jerry Voorhis’ congressional seat, Nixon practically invented political anti-communism. To New Deal Democrats, Nixon’s red-baiting brought fears that the Black Shirts were on the march. To California Republicans, it was about time somebody exposed and did something about the links between the New Deal, the AF of L, the CIO, and the Communist Party.

In 1950, Nixon went after Sen. Helen Gahagan Douglas’ seat. According to her supporters, he sank to new lows, including the “Pink Sheet” showing how many times she had voted the Communist line and Nixon’s charge that the senator was “pink right down to her underwear.” New Deal Democrats hated Nixon for ridiculing their champion; conservative Republicans loved Nixon for socking it to the movie actress-do-gooder turned politician.

Almost forgotten from that cam paign is this: she started it. Incredibly, at the beginning of the campaign, Sen. Douglas accused Nixon of being soft on Communism and of voting the Communist line.

In 1952, Nixon was in a national campaign, but the critical moment took place in California. As Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate, Nixon had attempted to seize the moral high ground with holier-than-thou campaign speeches about the Truman Administration scandals and how Gen. Eisenhower was going to clean up the mess in Washington. Then it was revealed that Nixon had a “secret fund.” It appeared he was being supported by California millionaires. Rather than resign from the ticket, as many top Republicans urged him to do, Nixon launched a brilliant counterattack, with his famous Checkers speech--which saved his career and established a whole new way of using television in politics. The speech caused Nixon detractors to throw up, but his supporters loved it.

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In 1962, Nixon was back in Califor nia, running for governor against incumbent Pat Brown. He lost, badly, and took it badly. The morning after the election, he blasted the reporters for their coverage, accusing them of bias (except for Carl Greenberg of the Los Angeles Times, who he singled out to praise--to Greenberg’s considerable embarrassment). He concluded: “I just want you to think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Reporters, led by James Reston of The New York Times, wrote his political obituary. They assumed that no one in American politics could attack the press and get away with it. But Nixon had outwitted the reporters again, and in the process inaugurated a new era in American politics.

What Nixon realized and the reporters didn’t was that about half the people of California thought the press was guilty of knee-jerk liberalism and always giving the shaft to Republican candidates. They loved what Nixon said, and thought it was about time somebody said it.

Back to the point: people admired Nixon, or hated him, for the same reasons. Not least among these was this fact: He never gave up. Nixon-haters felt the man had no shame whatsoever and wished he would just crawl away. Nixon-admirers felt the man was heroic and wished they would always have him with them.

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It sometimes almost seemed he would always be with us. Just this year, as an 81-year-old, he was able to stir up a worldwide headline-making political controversy just by meeting another out-of-power politician in Moscow.

But on Friday, he was gone. All across the country young people who have no memory of Nixon in office have been astonished by the tremendous outpouring of emotion and comment on the man. What astonishes the over-30 crowd is the respectful attention and comment Nixon received. Thinking back to his resignation in 1974, it just seems impossible that he was able to come back. But he did--and without groveling.

All his political life Nixon had scorned “the easy way,” which upon examination almost always proved to be the way of the weak, of the liberal, or of the uninformed. But after Aug. 9, 1974, he really did reject “the easy way.” The American people yearned to forgive Nixon, but he never let them. All the people wanted was an apology, but they never got it. In his view, he had never done anything for which he needed forgiveness, and he did not want sympathy nor understanding. What he wanted was respect.

Slowly, over the decade-and-a-half following his resignation, he earned that respect the hard way, Nixon’s way.

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