May 23, 2013
Richard Nixon at 100: The Man Who Matters
Posted on Jan 8, 2013
When Nixon finally met Rehnquist (in those days after the nomination had been made), he used the occasion for a typical Nixonian “pep talk.” “I will give you one last bit of advice, because you’re going to be independent, naturally,” the president said. “And that is don’t let the fact that you’re under heat change any of your views. … So just be as mean and rough as they said you are.” Perhaps another accurate prediction. “Thanks, Mr. President,” an obviously pleased Rehnquist replied as the conversation ended.
Rehnquist began his Supreme Court tenure dissenting on a wide variety of cases, including the brand new issue of abortion. He argued that the 14th Amendment was designed to deal with slavery, and he narrowly restricted its application in current issues. His views on criminal procedure, the establishment clause, the commerce clause and federalism consistently rejected precedents of earlier years. By the time he became chief justice in 1986, Rehnquist clearly had emerged as the intellectual and ideological leader of the court. Subsequent appointments were largely in his own image, such as his successor, John Roberts, Rehnquist’s ideological companion and former clerk. Nixon’s forecast has proven all too true.
And then we have Watergate, Nixon’s “spot that will not out” and one that must be confronted in consideration of his legacy. Nixon early on realized the dangers posed by his men who conceived and approved the break-in of Democratic headquarters in June 1972. On the night of his re-election in November 1972 Nixon felt a “foreboding” that dampened his enthusiasm. Watergate, he wrote in his diary, was the only “sour note” of the moment. “Stupidity,” he wrote, on the part of people involved; yet he knew his own liabilities resulting from his direction and participation in the cover-up.
As Watergate unraveled, Nixon’s role came into stark relief; the eventual access to some 30 hours of Oval Office tapes revealed how Nixon launched the cover-up on the day after the break-in when he and his chief of staff concocted the idea of using the CIA to divert the FBI’s entry into the case. Several months of Senate hearings, investigations by U.S. attorneys and their successor special prosecutors, and a probing, hard-line judge compiled an array of evidence implicating the president. The House Judiciary Committee conducted an impeachment inquiry that resulted in several charges that Nixon had engaged in “abuses of power” and a criminal obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court the day before had ruled that Nixon had no claim to “executive privilege” to withhold tapes that might offer evidence of his criminal involvement. After the new tapes were released, Nixon chose to resign, rather than face impeachment. The man who liked to claim many firsts, was the first to give meaning to an otherwise obscure constitutional clause.
After his resignation, Nixon poured his energies into his final campaign—the battle for history. Alexander Butterfield, the man who revealed the existence of the White House taping system—which, of course, was Nixon’s undoing—described the president as a man always conscious of his history. “[T]he president is very history oriented and history conscious about the role he is going to play,” Butterfield testified to the Senate Watergate Committee in July 1973, and added that Nixon “is not at all subtle about it, or about admitting it.”
History very much mattered to Nixon. No different from other leaders who realized that when their power faded, they had only their history, which they desperately tried to control. Nixon installed the White House taping system in a vain belief that he would capture the authoritative version of his presidency. Ironically, those tapes sealed his downfall, and to this day they continue to diminish the man and his achievements.
Nixon offered the paradox of an intelligent yet curiously flawed man who left a divided legacy, often resulting from his self-destructive actions. His lament over Watergate (“I gave them a sword and they stuck it in,” he told journalist David Frost. “And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I’d been in their position I’d have done the same thing”) however self-pitying, underlines the fundamental truth that he was his own worst enemy. He was a man of great power who left a stamp on his time and beyond, yet petty enough to accomplish his own ruin.
Speaking at his East Room “farewell” just before resigning, Nixon offered the most prescient judgment of himself: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them—and then you destroy yourself.”
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