Must Reads: Fifty years ago today, Richard Nixon took office, and for him it was a time of hope, civility and optimism

Inauguration Day 1969 dawned windy, stone-gray clouds gathering to shroud the viewing stands from the sun, a sharp cold chilling the nation’s capital. But for Richard M. Nixon, as for the American people he would finally lead after years of planning his presidency, it was a bright, but now forgotten, new dawn.

Forgotten today, half a century after the 37th president took the oath of office, is that in that new dawn there was talk of peace from the old cold warrior, expressions of civil rights goodwill from the presidential candidate whose Southern strategy played on racial tensions, an air of reconciliation around a man who had sowed division.

And through the White House operation that Nixon was quietly constructing coursed fresh breezes of innovation — to clean the air, the land and the waters of the damage created by the rush to industrialization, to ease the way of the poor and the striving left behind in the rush to mold a modern workforce, to plant seeds of opportunity in the fields of despair left fallow in the rush to build a broad consumer society.

America thought it knew Richard Nixon back then, when his very name summoned a pastiche of memories: an acidic California campaign for the Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas remembered as one of the meanest ever; a treacly defense of a vice presidential candidate’s personal fund remembered for his reference to his daughters’ cocker spaniel, Checkers; a you-don’t-have-Nixon-to-kick-around valedictory from a bitter 1962 gubernatorial loss to Pat Brown.

America thinks it knows Richard Nixon now, 50 years later, when his very name summons other memories: the I-am-not-a-crook disavowal, the crude remarks on the White House tapes, the Watergate cover-up, the televised resignation speech, the teary farewell to staff and country that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later called an “elegy of agony.”

Though other events would help define Nixon as president — his astonishing walk along the Great Wall of China and his stroll through Soviet Russia’s Red Square — this largely unmarked anniversary recalls the great hope, the deep sense of mission, the pervasive air of national purpose and the jolting frisson of idealism that surrounded Jan. 20, 1969, and spilled into the early years of his presidency. Paul O’Neill, then a junior Nixon aide and future Treasury secretary, recalled those were “heady days, when Nixon was advocating things that were simply about good and better government.”

“Each moment in history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set that shape decades or centuries. This can be such a moment.”

Nixon's inaugural address

All great stories have an “In the beginning” start, but — after so many Nixon beginnings, from his rearing under the lemon trees in the spare wooden house in Yorba Linda to his World War II enlistment in the Navy to his daring 1946 House race to his 1960 presidential campaign — this one was astonishing.

Nixon inauguration
Richard Nixon, with his wife, Pat, by his side, is sworn in by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Pictorial Parade

It was only after his fourth national campaign — two as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, two as a Republican presidential nominee — and only after he marketed the improbable notion that there was a “New Nixon” that Richard Milhous Nixon had a chance to let his years of bookish reserve and seething resentments be superseded by his years of studying the presidency, of examining how the levers of government worked, of discovering the little-known back alleys of Washington power, of exploring, as if he were a modern-day Palmerston and Bismarck, how to manage contentious diplomatic relationships.

“He was a serious student of the office, the way Woodrow Wilson was,” said the historian David Eisenhower, President Eisenhower’s grandson and Nixon’s son-in-law. “This was a lifelong opportunity to apply what he had studied to the solutions of the country’s and the world’s problems.”

And though his presidency ended in a spasm of scandal and disgrace, it began on a high note of high aspiration. Indeed, in retrospect one of the great ironies of the first scenes of the Nixon presidential opera is that it opened with the same high ambitions possessed of his great rival John F. Kennedy — indeed with the same “high apple pie, in the sky, hopes” that Frank Sinatra sang about in the 1960 Kennedy theme song that the Nixon camp found so cloying.

“He wanted in that first term to establish credibility — to say that he wasn’t a right-wing conservative activist and show he wasn’t radical,” said the historian Richard Norton Smith, who has served as the director of the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford and Reagan presidential libraries. “He wanted to show that the country could elect a Republican and not turn back the clock.”

That feeling was pervasive, at least within the Nixon circle. “There was the feeling that we were given an opportunity to put the country back on an even keel, to help it heal up,” said John Roy Price, one of the centrist Republicans who became part of the Nixon domestic policy staff.

In his 1993 eulogy for Nixon, President Clinton, who during Nixon’s first year in the White House protested the Vietnam War and successfully angled to avoid the draft, saluted the president he once reviled, saying, “May the day of judging Richard Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”


"Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in.Those left behind, we will help to catch up."

read the speech

Thomas Jefferson, no admirer of the role of the president in the new Constitution, thought the founders had created an office that was no more than “a bad edition of a Polish king.” Nixon saw the modern presidency far differently, and in the weeks leading to his inauguration he solicited speech drafts from Patrick Buchanan, a conservative agent provocateur; from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat and Harvard professor who would help craft the most significant Nixon domestic initiatives; from William Safire, a future New York Times columnist; and even from Paul Keyes, a producer of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” where Nixon once awkwardly delivered its running punchline, “Sock it to me.” He wanted an inaugural address that soared as much in its language as it soared in its goals.

Mostly he worked with Ray Price, a onetime editorial page editor of the New York Herald Tribune, the two of them determined to craft an address that allowed the man to match the moment, enhancing them both. This was a joint effort of a master of the political arts and a master of the literary arts, the result of more than a year of collaboration that began before Nixon had announced his candidacy. When Price drafted a piece for Nixon for the journal Foreign Affairs, the future president instructed him that the language had to be “recognizably Nixon.”

Nixon read every previous inaugural address, especially admiring Lincoln’s second in 1865 and Theodore Roosevelt’s in 1905, and even asking his writers, “Anybody read Polk’s inaugural?” In the background, of course, was Kennedy’s 1961 “Ask not” address, a masterpiece of rhetoric and realism that would haunt every succeeding president and presidential speechwriter.

Nixon told Price that his address should make clear “that this administration is going to be progressive, that we’re not just going to be caretakers, that this is not just going to be a period of ‘normalcy.’” As a result, Nixon spoke about 1969 being a moment that could “shape decades or centuries,” about achieving “a just and abundant society,” about how the new president’s vision was “not turning away from the old, but turning toward the new.”

“That speech is the antithesis of the hard edge and the hard line that people think of Nixon,” Buchanan said 50 years later. “He felt he was no longer the partisan battler of the 1950s. He had been out of politics a good while. The country was much more polarized, but he was more confident and serene and he really felt he could bring the country together.”

Nixon inauguration
President Nixon views the inaugural parade with his family and friends. Associated Press

Various drafts of the 1969 speech — the libretto for the first years of his presidency — show margin notes in Nixon’s handwriting, as if his destiny and legacy were in his own hands. One note says: “I believe in this country.”

Price’s most enduring line — the words that would appear on Nixon’s Yorba Linda gravestone: “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker” — survived every rewrite of the speech. When Nixon took the oath of office, his left hand rested on a Bible opened to the passage from the Book of Isaiah about beating swords into plowshares.

In a memo written 10 days before the inauguration, Price urged Nixon to avoid hard-sell language: “If anything I think cautious understatement will catch fire better than extravagant overstatement.” The result was a speech that did capture the moment. While some inaugural remarks seem antiquarian decades later, the first Nixon inaugural address seems curiously fresh, in part because Nixon raised issues of enduring significance and addressed questions of enduring challenge, especially this one, as appropriate to his time as to ours: “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another — until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”

Commentators took notice of the new Nixon. The columnist Joseph Kraft, no Nixon admirer, noted the president “put behind him the cliches dear to the powers of darkness.” New York Times columnist James Reston was unusually full of praise: “The hawkish, political, combative, anti-communist, anti-Democrat Nixon of the past was not the man on the platform today. He reached out to all the people who opposed him in the last election — progressive Democrats, the young, the blacks, the Soviets.”

“Our destiny offers not the cup of despair but the chalice of opportunity.”

Nixon's inaugural address

In his diary, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, the new White House chief of staff, recalled Nixon’s moment and mood: “Expression on his face was unforgettable, this was the time! He had arrived, he was in full command, someone said he felt he saw rays coming from his eyes.”

The whole Haldeman family felt the same excitement. “There was a sense of possibility,” said Ann Haldeman Coppe, who was 9 at the time. “We knew that Dad was involved in very important things.”

Jo Haldeman, the chief of staff’s widow, said, “There was a tremendous feeling that great things could be accomplished, including ending the Vietnam War.”

That excitement did not sweep the Moynihan household. Liz Moynihan, then as now outspoken and strong-willed, let her husband move alone. She was not going, and as a result Nixon later would have to order protection of the Moynihan house during the antiwar protests in Cambridge, Mass.

“I went to Washington in 1961 for Kennedy, but I wouldn’t do that for Nixon,” she said. “He was totally unacceptable. I was shocked Pat would do this.”

The front page of the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 21, 1973.

John Roy Price, the aide who played a vital part in the administration’s domestic policy effort, remembered the start of Nixon’s presidency as a thrilling time. “There was the sense that Nixon was ecumenical. He didn’t want only true-blue conservatives on his staff. This was the staff of someone who was experienced, who was immensely prepared, trained and prepped for the presidency.”

Soon there were consumer initiatives, environmental programs, worker safety measures, even an effort to overhaul health insurance, a commitment to affirmative action, even support for the Equal Rights Amendment.

“I ask you to join in a high adventure — one as rich as humanity itself, and as exciting as the times we live in.”

Nixon's inaugural address

But no reverie lasts forever. Economic challenges, a balky Democratic Congress, a covert effort to undermine President Salvador Allende in Chile, the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, student uprisings and strikes from coast to coast — all pockmarked the early Nixon years. The Vietnam War dragged on and in 1970 Nixon widened that conflict to Cambodia, spawning more demonstrations and divisions. Like the domestic dreams of Lyndon B. Johnson, the domestic hopes of Richard Nixon were drowned by the war, drowned out by protest.

And eventually doomed by scandal.

“I don’t know why he got involved in that Watergate thing,” former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole said. “It was totally unnecessary — and totally inexplicable.”

And totally consuming, eventually destroying his presidency.

“Despite the accomplishments of Nixon in certain areas, these are still dwarfed by his ultimate disgrace and removal from office,” said Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University and editor of a book on the presidents and the Constitution. “President Nixon is really a study in pressing the constitutional boundaries too far and ultimately damaging the American presidency for his successors.”

When Stanley I. Kutler, the late University of Wisconsin historian, examined the Nixon tapes a quarter-century ago, he concluded that Nixon was preoccupied with “scheming, lying and worrying about what truths might be discovered or what must be covered up.”

The truths were discovered, the cover-up failed.

“We should not forget what he did because we are living through this again, only worse, and that there is a solution and that facts matter,” said Jill Wine-Banks, the Watergate prosecutor whose questioning of Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods led to her awkward demonstration of how she accidentally deleted 18 1/2 minutes of the Oval Office recordings. “We learned that in Watergate, and we learned that we cannot let the president think he is above the law.”

The motorcade carrying President Nixon and former President Johnson drives down Pennsylvania Avenue
A group of young American women protest in the rain for women's rights as police look on along the street near a government building during Richard Nixon's presidential inauguration weekend, Washington, DC, January 18-21, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
Members of the Youth International Party, dressed as a Colonial-era fife and drum corps, protest during President Nixon's inaugural ceremonies, Washington DC, January 20, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)
Top, the motorcade carrying President Nixon and former President Johnson drives down Pennsylvania Avenue. Bottom left, women protest for equal rights during the inauguration. Bottom right, members of the Youth International Party, or Yippies, dress as a Colonial-era fife and drum corps as a protest against Nixon. (Associated Press / Getty Images)

“We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.”

Nixon's inaugural address

And so, what of the Nixon legacy, and how is it affected by the ascendancy of Donald Trump?

“I ran against Nixon in a special congressional election and against continuing the tragedy of Vietnam,” said former Democratic Rep. Michael J. Harrington of Massachusetts, who prevailed in a 1969 race against a GOP opponent who had his picture taken with Nixon at the White House. “But Nixon looks like a virtuous citizen compared with the feckless clown we have in the White House now. I had total contempt for Nixon and his malevolence but, warts and all, he isn’t nearly as bad as Donald Trump.”

The question of Nixon and Trump will be examined for decades by historians, but the pairing of one with the other will seldom be to the advantage of either. “When we use the ideas and language of Watergate — what constitutes an abuse of power, what are the constitutional restraints on a president, all the talk about pardons — to understand Trump, that only reinforces Nixon’s image as a dark figure,” said Rutgers University historian David Greenberg, author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.”

Presidencies, even those of Nixon and Trump, are not fixed in the past. Jefferson today is regarded by some as a hypocritical slaveholder rather than as an apostle of liberty. Andrew Jackson is as vulnerable to charges he practiced genocide as to the notion that he symbolized rugged American virtues. When Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower left office, few people viewed them as memorable chief executives. Today they are greatly admired.

“A lot of controversial politicians tend to lose their controversy as time goes on,” said Frank Gannon, who helped Nixon with his writings after he left office. “For Nixon, the accumulated baggage stuck with him.”

Will he be remembered as the Aaron Burr of the 20th century, a man of unbecoming ambition and low scruples, or as an Alexander Hamilton, characterized in the Broadway show as having “a lot of brains but no polish”?

“The thing that Nixon has going for him is that he is a large personage,” said Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University historian who co-edited some of the Nixon tapes. “He doesn’t fade away like Gerald Ford or Warren G. Harding. But he’s also not George Washington or John F. Kennedy. Nobody wants to be photographed with books about Nixon in the background.”

And so at the 50th anniversary of his inauguration, Nixon seems curiously in flux.

Bob Dole, his hand and arm disfigured in World War II combat, remembers Nixon as the only person in politics who extended his left hand rather than his right to greet him. Others remember small acts of kindness. He telephoned Hubert H. Humphrey repeatedly as his 1968 rival was dying. Gannon believes Nixon was handicapped by his face; the president didn’t have, Gannon said, “the facial expressions for compassion and warmth.” Onetime presidential military aide Col. Jack Brennan said Nixon “was not a guy you go backpacking with.”

But the great irony — one that would have amused Richard Nixon and tortured John F. Kennedy — is that the most famous line that Alan Jay Lerner wrote for the musical “Camelot” might apply not only to the brief Kennedy interlude at the beginning of the 1960s but also to the early White House period of Nixon at the end of the 1960s, the forgotten new dawn that for “one brief shining moment” was full of high hopes and high purpose.

“People today don’t know any of this, because it has all been subsumed in Watergate and people’s recollections of the Nixon personality,” said O’Neill, the former Nixon staffer.

“And even the takes on his personality, while not complete lies, are incomplete characterizations of Nixon,” O’Neill went on. “He was most at home in his office in the Executive Office Building, with his feet on a stool, sitting with his yellow legal pad, writing notes and ideas about policies and programs. He loved doing that. Instead he is regarded as the epitome of evil.”

Magazine Reveals Identity Of Watergate's
Nixon's grave in Yorba Linda. David McNew / Getty Images

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Shribman is a special correspondent.

Produced by Kelcie Pegher.