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Nixon at 100–Still Fascinating

[This article written for TOWNHALL.COM–to read it at that site, CLICK HERE]

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Why do I still find Richard Nixon so fascinating? After all, my political views on many matters are arguably more conservative than his were and would likely be if he were alive and politically engaged today.  I think my interest has always flowed from what I admired about the man himself.  A giant American historical figure, Mr. Nixon was on five national electoral tickets—a feat matched only by Franklin Roosevelt.

This weekend, the Richard Nixon Centennial Special Exhibit opens at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.  It was my privilege to provide the narration for the exhibit’s video: Patriot. President. Peacemaker.

I grew up as a history geek and remember running home at the age of 12, after an early school dismissal on January 20, 1969, to watch Nixon’s inauguration as 37th President of the United States.

More than a year earlier, as Christmas approached in 1967, Richard M. Nixon, private – though prominent – American citizen, went through a period of soul searching.  The sweep of national and international events, as well as extraordinary personal experiences, weighed on his pensive mind.  He was emerging from a wilderness period, the kind he would later quote historian Arnold Toynbee describing as the, “temporary withdrawal of the creative personality from his social milieu transfigured in a newer capacity with new powers.”

To some, the term Nixonian refers to charting a more moderate (or as Mr. Nixon would likely have described: “centrist”) path.  This is certainly an accurate definition as far as it goes.  But to me, Nixonian is more than a mere political nomenclature indicative of a body of tactics and strategy.

To me, Nixonian is a metaphor for persistence.

Richard Nixon was the embodiment of rugged determination.  He personified what nineteenth-century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle once wrote: “Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragement, and impossibilities. It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.”

And in those waning days of 1967, Mr. Nixon was poised to mount another campaign for our nation’s highest office, though he had not actually won an election in more than a decade.  He had lost a breathtakingly close race for the presidency in 1960.  Then, in an awkward comeback attempt, was rejected in 1962 by California voters in a race he was encouraged to run by former President.  Immediately thereafter, the prevalent wisdom was that Nixon was a loser, and that his political obituary had already been written.

But the so-called experts were all wrong.  Nixon was down, but certainly not out.  In so many ways, as was the case with Winston Churchill, the days described by most biographers as his wilderness period, were among his best.  Persistence, determination, patience, reflection – these were the future president’s watchwords as the nation was torn by crisis, a horrific presidential assassination, an expanding and confusing war in Southeast Asia, and national leadership marked by the hubris of some who apparently actually thought they were “the best and brightest.”

On the eve of 1968, a year that would be marked by tumult and division, many were beginning to take another good long look at Richard Nixon.  At the time, Lyndon Johnson’s hold on the office was tenuous. LBJ would bow out for good by the end of March.  It was shaping up to be a very interesting political season.

What was happening was akin to a political story in Great Britain a generation earlier, when a man thought to be a has-been rose again to lead at a perilous moment.  Signs began to pop up all over London in 1939 bearing the words, “What Price Churchill?” Winston Churchill would so often say, “KBO,” which meant: “Keep Buggering On.”  I am not sure if Richard Nixon ever said it exactly that way – but he clearly understood the meaning.

Citizen Nixon had a long talk with his family on Christmas Day in 1967 about whether or not he should run again for the White House.  It was a subdued moment for all of them – but especially Nixon, himself.  His mother, Hannah – beloved by her son, and a source of strength and encouragement through the years – had passed away that previous September.  Among her last words to him were: “Richard, don’t you give up. Don’t let anybody tell you, you are through.”

As Nixon’s mind reflected on his mother and her inspiring words, he remembered the simple, yet profound, funeral service at the Friends Church in East Whittier, including the moving eulogy shared by Billy Graham.  Possibly, this is when he decided to send a plane to pick up the evangelist, inviting the preacher to spend some time with him at Key Biscayne a few days hence.

Graham was ill and had cancelled all of his engagements.  But he likely recalled a moment a few years before – in the autumn of 1963 – when John F. Kennedy had invited Graham to ride with him in the presidential limousine and talk at the White House. Graham was sick that day too, and begged off, asking for a rain check.  But before such a conversation would ever take place, the president traveled to Dallas.  Likely, Billy didn’t think twice about accepting Nixon’s invitation.

The politician and the evangelist walked Key Biscayne’s beach on New Year’s Eve in 1967, and the conversation was about whether or not Nixon should run. Graham encouraged his friend that day arguing: “You are the best prepared man in the United States to be president.”

The preacher was right.

Among Nixon’s favorite lines to quote were those from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man In The Arena” speech.  But Richard Nixon also exemplified what Kipling wrote about in “IF”: “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will, which says to them: ‘Hold on’…”.

That’s Nixonian.

3 replies »

  1. What you would categorize as “persistence” or determination many would say was a prideful lust for power. This same “determination” and/or persistence, years later, caused this same man to break the law to retain that power. Persistence and determination are wonderful qualities when they are directed toward the right motives. In this case, I would adamantly question those “ideals”…….However, how much different was he than many political leaders today. Nixonian to me in plain language means, “do what you gotta do to survive” and that can be dangerous…..Further in 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush unquestionably was the most “prepared man” to be president by resume, experience and position. But history tells us that it doesn’t always work that way. All in all though, Nixon MAY have been a better choice in 1968 and 1972, maybe!!

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  2. In the comment above, I meant to say 1992 when referring to George Herbert Walker Bush, who was already president at the time……Supremely qualified both times , i.e., Congress, Ambassador to China, CIA Director, Vice President, and then President….sorry for the mistake

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  3. From the author:

    As a rule, I don’t reply to, or comment on, postings by others related to my articles, blogs, and columns. But I violate that rule today to comment on the previous posts because they were written by a dear friend whose opinion I value—and to clarify a little about what I was trying to accomplish with the article titled: “NIXON AT 100—STILL FASCINATING.”

    The article was written as part of a national notice about the opening of a special exhibit at the late former president’s library in California. My goal, of course, was to eulogize Mr. Nixon with my personal comments.

    We all know that the man had his faults—and interestingly, the new exhibit deals with those. He was a gritty politician who was, as he noted about his hero Teddy Roosevelt, “sometimes right; sometimes wrong.”

    My comments about persistence had to do with his ability to come back from defeat—even when that defeat was self-inflicted. And I think that is an admirable trait.

    Nixonian is a political term that refers to his philosophy of centrism—or moderation. And I would definitely disagree with him about that. Also he had a mean—even profane—streak that was clear. Even Billy Graham was disappointed at that when it came out.

    All that said, I would agree that he did much to “survive” – and such was (and remains) the Darwinian nature of power politics. Most think of the term Machiavellian to characterize this.

    Nixon certainly exhibited a Machiavellian side. He played the game of politics according to the rule he understood – and then violated those when it seemed to serve his purposes. He paid a heavy price for this—so did the country.

    It takes nothing, though, away from Mr. Nixon’s clear failings and flaws to suggest that several of his predecessors did equal, some would say even worse (usually depending on the political philosophy of the observer). FDR, JFK, LBJ, they were all men skilled at skullduggery and dirty tricks, but they got a pass from the media of their day, and thus the nation. They even get a pass with many historians.

    But if any of them did what they did now, they’d be impeached. As would Nixon.

    So I want to be clear. I simply wanted to write a nice personal piece from the perspective of someone who admired Nixon for the good things he did, as his the centennial of his birth is noted.

    For example, he played a pivotal role in the survival of Israel at a crucial time. He said at the time, “For this purpose I was born” – a statement that suggested a Biblical influence from his youth (sort of like Truman in 1948).

    But, I never want to gloss over the bad—and never will. Like large characters even in the Bible, history views the good and bad. I think he made piece in later years about the bad.

    As the recent piece in Atlantic Monthly (no friend of RN when he was alive) has said: “We Shall Not See His Like Again.” — DRS

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