The Operatic Life of Richard Nixon

The last progressive Republican in the White House won re-election by the largest margin of any president since Washington -- before it all fell apart.

nixonPresident Nixon gives a double V-sign during the Inaugural Ball to celebrate his election to a second term, Jan. 26, 1973. (Arnold Sachs/Getty Images)

On this, the 100th birthday of Richard Nixon, the slogan from his first campaign for Congress is the salient fact: "One of us." His dreams were ours -- and so, in the end, were his sins.

The life of no president says more about this country. Nixon's accomplishments sing of the finest American attributes -- daring, audacity, resilience and grit. His fall is an incantation of the nation's flaws, of meanness, prejudice, avarice and corruption.

We live in a world that Nixon made. His February 1972 opening to China -- that planet-stunning handshake with Mao -- set the earth's peoples on a new and liberating course. It was the first great crack in the Iron Curtain; a bell tolling for the Soviet Union and the Cold War, an indispensible step toward an integrated world economy that would lift billions from want and grant them, as he so hoped, a measure of peace.

"What a vision must exist then now in Nixon," marveled Norman Mailer that summer in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. "What a dream to save the land."

Nine months after his return from China, Nixon won re-election by the largest margin of any president since George Washington, carrying every state but Massachusetts.

Then, debacle. On the anvil of the presidency, in an era of war and rampage, social upheaval and generational turmoil, the insistent flaws in his character gave way. Nixon broke.

"He had turned a dream into an obsession," Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoir, Years of Upheaval. Consumed by his hatred of enemies, real and imagined, Nixon okayed illegal wiretaps, burglaries, assaults and the cover-up that ultimately brought him down.

"What gave Nixon his driven quality was the titanic struggle among the various personalities within him," Kissinger wrote. "And it was a struggle that never ended; there was never a permanent victory between the dark and the sensitive sides of his nature. Now one, now another personality predominated, creating an overall impression of menace, of torment, of unpredictability and, in the final analysis, of enormous vulnerability."


Americans, at their best, are romantics. As was Nixon. He dreamed of noble triumphs in international affairs; asked to use Woodrow Wilson's desk in the Oval Office. He was sworn in as vice president on a Quaker Bible opened to the beatitude: Blessed are the Peacemakers. "We are asking you to join us in a great venture," he told congressional leaders in 1972, after his second historic trip that year, to sign a nuclear arms treaty with the leaders of the Soviet Union. "We may change the world for a while."

He embodied, too, another great American virtue: pragmatism. His was the last progressive Republican presidency, his White House manned by bright young men (and women) who devised forward-thinking reforms for health care, poverty, civil rights and affirmative action, the treatment of American Indians, the advancement of women and protection of the environment.

He could be achingly, clumsily kind. In 2012, his alma mater, Whittier College, settled a decades-long dispute with the National Archives and opened more than 300 oral histories it had conducted among Nixon's friends and family to historians. In one of them, a classmate at Duke Law School recalls how a fellow student, a victim of polio, needed to be carried up the stone steps of a building to class, and how it was Dick Nixon who assigned himself the task.

Nixon had exceptional powers of perception and intelligence, but little grace. He was not unhandsome in his twenties and thirties, but as he aged the famous five o'clock shadow, the spatulate nose and flabby jowls left him sport for caricature. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Marshall McLuhan watched Nixon in the televised debate with Jack Kennedy and concluded, in Understanding Media, that the then-vice president came across as "the railway lawyer who signs leases that are not in the interests of the folks in the little town."

A young Roger Ailes, who helped craft Nixon's resurgence in the 1968 presidential campaign, told author Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President that the challenge was that Nixon "was 42 years old the day he was born" and that voters "figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it."

He was raised in the hicks, the son of a loud, uncouth grocer and an emotionally austere and often-absent mother. His childhood was marked by emotional privation and the death of two cherished brothers. It left him awkward, shy, peculiar.

"I wish you would come home right now," he wrote his mother as a boy of 10. He signed the letter, "Your good dog, Richard."

Nixon was "badly, badly hurt" as a child, said his friend and aide Bryce Harlow. He never learned to trust, and people shied from trusting him. "He went up the walls of life with his claws."

As a young man Nixon was spurned by Eastern elites, and seethed ever after with resentment. He went through life like a whipped cur, flinching from real and imagined cuffs. "People react to fear, not love," Nixon told speechwriter William Safire. "They don't teach that in Sunday school, but it's true."

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John Aloysius Farrell is the author of Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned and Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century. He is currently writing a book on Richard Nixon.

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