No politician in American history had a longer and more controversial career than Richard Nixon. His actions during his 48 years as a congressman, senator, vice president, gubernatorial candidate, president, writer and world statesman provoked uncommonly strong expressions of support and opposition.
Celebrated by some as a great peacemaker who delivered America from a nuclear war, Nixon has been excoriated by others as the most corrupt President ever to sit in the White House. Eulogized by admirers as a model of courageous determination, an exemplar of the self-made American who overcame much adversity, critics remember him as a self-pitying opportunist who permanently damaged the presidency and deepened the country's political cynicism.
When commentators divide so sharply over a public figure, they take refuge in the observation that "history will judge," meaning, "in time, my side of the argument will be vindicated." But good, fair-minded history is less devoted to judging than trying to understand and explain. There is, of course, no objective, antiseptic history, no bias-free rendering of the past; score-settling can be as common among historians as among political advocates. But future generations, safely removed from the issues that stirred old passions, will be better able to take on the historian's task and produce something closer to a balanced, dispassionate assessment of Richard Nixon than anything biographers might write now.
But it will not be easy. Scholars will have a deuce of a time making sense of Nixon's contradictions. They will wonder about the meteoric rise to the vice presidency of someone whose campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas and response to the Alger Hiss case made him a mean-spirited political figure with an affinity for dirty tricks. They will struggle to explain the rise to the presidency of a man whose stiff, standoffish personality was ill-suited to a television age--a time when charm and charisma counted for more than the power of someone's intellect and ideas, Nixon's long suits. They will be hard pressed to understand how the man some dubbed "the great American loser" achieved his 1972 landslide, one of the greatest in American presidential history.
On matters of foreign policy as well, students of Nixon's career will have some difficult questions to answer. How will they make sense of the gap between the early anti-Communist ideologue and the pragmatic proponent of detente with Soviet Russia and Communist China? How will they square Nixon's four-year extension of the war in Indochina with American defeat in its longest conflict? How will they balance the impulse to reach accommodations with Communist governments in Europe and Asia against the policy of overturning Salvador Allende's constitutionally elected, left-leaning government in Chile?
As for domestic affairs during Nixon's presidency, it will only add to the confusion. The mixture of conservative, anti-government rhetoric and actions with the embrace of liberal policies, like wage and price controls, environmental protection, school desegregation in the South and welfare and health care reforms, cry out for explanation. Nixon's unsuccessful nominations of two conservative Southerners for the Supreme Court, followed by the appointment of Harry Blackmun, one of the most liberal justices of the last 30 years, further complicates the story.
And what of the criminality of a presidential Administration supposedly so devoted to law and order? Why, moreover, didn't Nixon, who worked so hard to cover up the Watergate scandal, destroy the secret tapes that compelled him to give up his office? And finally, there is the puzzle of the return to respectability of the country's most disgraced chief executive. Was it largely Nixon's doing? Or was it principally the changing times?
Finding reasonable answers to these questions will test our powers of comprehension. But future biographers will have the advantage of access to tens of thousands of documents and thousands of recordings currently locked up in the National Archives. This material, which Nixon spent the last 20 years fighting to keep from public view, will go far to explain his motives and role in shaping his presidency. It will also give us insights into his character that the recollections of outside observers can not provide.
Nixon's nine post-presidential books, ranging from his memoirs, "RN," published in 1978, to his discussions of political leadership, Vietnam and American foreign policy in a Cold War and post-Cold War world, will become documents in the search for understanding.
"Beyond Peace," a succinct 250-page analysis of how America must approach the dilemmas of the coming century at home and abroad, will be seen as Nixon's last will and testament, a summing up of ideas that Nixon saw as his legacy to the country he loved, served and mis-served in his long career.
The book will add to the puzzle of Richard Nixon. It is as contradictory as the man himself. In its analysis of foreign affairs, it is as wise and forward-looking as anything one could hope to see from the pen of an American statesman. On domestic issues, however, it is as strident and cliche ridden as an early Nixon campaign address.
Unlike the Clinton Administration, Nixon had a clear idea of where he believed the country needed to go in foreign affairs. "If America is to remain a great nation," he said, "what we need today is a mission beyond peace," which has come with the end of the Cold War. And that mission must be informed by a recognition that we cannot do everything everywhere. " . . . We must consider each situation on its merits," asking, "Will our involvement be consistent with our values? Will it serve our interests? Will it serve the interests of our friends? Will it serve the interests of those directly involved."
With these questions in mind, Nixon prescribed an American policy for every corner of the globe. Russia was at the center of his concerns. America needs to do everything possible to advance political and economic freedom in the former Soviet Union. "Today's generation of American leaders will be judged primarily by whether they did everything possible to bring about this outcome. If they fail, the cost that their successors will have to pay will be unimaginably high."
Nixon counseled against thinking that Russia would become an American-style democracy. It won't, but we need to be patient and tolerant in allowing Russia to work out its own "democratic" solutions to its many problems. And while doing so, "we should accentuate the positive rather than dwell obsessively on the negative in the unfolding Russian saga." And more concretely, we and other Western governments should commit themselves to a kind of Marshall Plan for Russia and the other former Soviet states that will cost us far less in the long run than a new round of confrontation with a hostile Russia.
Nixon had much good sense to offer as well on NATO, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the importance of Asia in America's future, especially Japan and China, and how unwise policies of confrontation with those Asian giants would be for our national well-being. Specifically, Nixon warned against allowing "politicians on both sides of the Pacific (from) exploit(ing) U.S.-Japanese trade problems to score political points on the home front."
Instead, he urged a series of steps for accommodation with both Tokyo and Beijing that President Clinton would do well to consider. Indeed, "Beyond Peace" is a fine primer on foreign policy for an Administration that is struggling to develop a surer grasp of world affairs.
On domestic policy, however, Nixon's advice rarely rises above familiar homilies about free enterprise and the virtues of law and order. He decries the growth of government programs, urging instead expanded "economic freedom, which is the only way to assure prosperity and individual liberty; and a moral and cultural system that strengthens the family, personal responsibility, and the instincts for civic virtue." His prescriptions for arriving at such desirable goals seem less than persuasive. He advocates a shift from income and payroll taxes to a value-added tax, for example. But he has nothing to say about the political realities that stand in the way of so large a reform.
In his Nixon biography, "One of Us," Tom Wicker argued that this controversial man was in fact a reflection of our national contradictions. But the contrast between Nixon's understanding of international and domestic affairs suggests another perspective. Where unemotional, hardheaded analysis of problems count most in challenges abroad, Nixon had the capacity to be a first-rate leader. Where compassion for human suffering is a special attribute in a nation beset by so many domestic problems, Nixon, the cold, calculating politician, had little to offer.
Nixon and the problems of understanding he left us now belong to the ages.