Thirty-nine years ago yesterday, all of America sat in front of a television and watched this:
And 39 years ago today, we were all back in front of the television and watched this:
I watched both in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y. I was 19.
Richard Nixon was the most fascinating president of my lifetime. I’ve read more about him than I’ve read about any other leader of the free world. Biographies, autobiographies, histories and analyses. Throughout his life, he rocketed to extreme highs and plunged to extreme lows. A psychiatric sociologist would call this a bipolar political career.
Here was a guy who survived a childhood filled with poverty, death and emotional pain. He had a sense of class inferiority that was so consuming that he channeled it into a vicious vindictiveness against the elites who looked down on him. And let’s not ignore the reality that the elites did look down on him.
But, when he became one of the elite, he played on the worst instincts of America. He galvanized millions of “silent Americans” in the suburbs to distrust anyone they felt inferior to, and he instilled in them a sense of superiority that allowed them to channel their contempt and anger toward those who were worse off than they were. The “Southern Strategy” that pervades Republican politics to this day was the Nixon strategy.
But that wasn’t what put him over the top. Nixon ran for president when American was in the midst of a cultural civil war. When you read histories of the late ’60s and early ’70s, you see a nation torn by an overseas conflict, a cultural shift among the young against everything their parents stood for, and angry clashes over civil rights. The country was in the midst of armed insurrection.
Nixon won in 1968 because of riots in the streets and a demand for law and order. And he won in 1972 because the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, destroyed himself with bad choices and no control over his party. That was Nixon’s high.
And then Nixon’s minions let a group of paranoid thugs commit crimes against a political party that was never even close to posing a threat to re-election in November 1972. The Democrats did everything they could to lose that election: a disjointed convention, a selection of a running mate who went through shock therapy, and a “get out the vote” message that was essentially “I may be a bad choice, but I’m not as bad as Nixon.”
Geez, what the hell were they thinking? That was supposed to inspire Democrats to vote for McGovern?
Nixon’s “Committee to Re-Elect the President” (how could they not see the acronym CREEP in this name?) never had to lift a finger to ensure re-election. So it broke into the Watergate complex, and the results were the two speeches you see above. That was the lowest of Nixon’s lows.
This is the part I remember the most from Nixon’s farewell speech:
Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.
When you heard those words come out of his mouth, you were stunned. Because at that moment, Richard Milhous Nixon fully explained the reason why he was forced to resign as the most powerful man in the world.
Years after the resignation, the former president appeared at an event with his successors Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican, described the gathering of the three presidents as “See no evil, hear no evil and Evil.” And we all knew who “Evil” was.
But when Nixon died, Bob Dole cried his eyes out at the disgraced president’s funeral. He loved the guy.
On the night Nixon announced his resignation and the day he gave his farewell speech, I cried. And I hated the guy.
I really do have a twisted appreciation for one of the most divisive presidents in American history.