Commentary: Remembering Nixon

Jan 9, 2013

Richard Nixon, who remains probably the most enigmatic and fascinating of modern presidents, would have been 100 years old today. I never exactly met him, though I was in the same room with him twice, and got a nod and a smile.

Thirty years ago, however, I got a surprising and totally unsolicited letter and package from our only president ever to resign from office. In his own handwriting, Nixon wrote:
  “Dear Mr. Lessenberry, in view of the national debate on foreign policy issues, I thought you might like to have a copy of the page proofs of a book on Soviet-American relations which I have just completed.”  Nixon added that he was sending the book to, quote, “a selected number of government officials and opinion leaders.”

This flabbergasted me. I was then a young national correspondent for the Detroit News, specializing in politics and foreign affairs, and frequently traveled abroad. But I was hardly a national opinion leader.

Then it dawned on me why he had sent the letter. Following his resignation, Nixon turned out a steady stream of books, largely self-serving, in an effort to rebuild his reputation.

I did a lot of book reviews then, and had given an enthusiastically favorable review to a book Nixon had published the year before, a book called “Leaders.” Unlike his other books, it consisted of a collection of fascinating portraits of great statesmen he had met, from Winston Churchill to Golda Meir. 

Most reviewers then just routinely slammed everything Nixon wrote. But I liked that one. Alas, I found his new book, which was called “Real Peace”, dreadful. I guess I stopped being an opinion leader then, because I never heard from him again.

In his later years, Nixon hosted a series of dinners for journalists too young to have covered Watergate, and I tried to get invited to one of those. But I didn’t succeed. 

Nixon’s been dead almost 19 years now, but new books about him pour forth every year. Today, we mostly remember the president whose obsessions caused him to preside over a White House which sent secret teams of “plumbers” to violate people’s civil liberties.

The man who even bugged himself, and who in the end had to resign the presidency after his own tapes revealed he had lied and tried to cover up the Watergate burglary right from the start.

I can’t think of another political figure so easy to parody. But there was another Richard Nixon too, a man Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky both maintain was “our last liberal president.“ This was the Nixon who proposed a revolutionary welfare reform that was regrettably shot down. The Nixon who made the opening to China, who approved the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Title IX for women’s sports.

I think politicians in both parties today might do well to study his record and his philosophy. Historian Stephen Ambrose once lost a university teaching job for heckling Nixon during a speech.

Later, after writing a three-volume biography of Nixon, Ambrose concluded that he was a paranoid misanthrope -- but a genius. And he came to believe the nation lost more than it gained when he resigned. I suspect we will never see Nixon’s like again.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.