The Operatic Life of Richard Nixon

On his 100th birthday, looking back at a politician who truly was "one of us"

President 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."

A candidate of the elite, Adlai Stevenson, captured their snobbery and scorn for Nixon, who so angered them by exposing one of their own—Alger Hiss—as a Soviet spy. "Nixonland," Stevenson said in a speech in Los Angeles in 1956, was "a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win."


In part through self-discernment, Nixon recognized the defects of human character, and employed that knowledge to manipulate his countrymen. He persuaded Americans to gnaw, as he did, on grievances—and to look upon each other as enemies.

Nixon persuaded Americans to gnaw, as he did, on grievances -- and to look upon each other as enemies.

It was Nixon who helped launch the McCarthy era, whose aides drafted declarations of culture war, who set South against North in his "southern strategy" and instructed his Silent Majority to distrust the country's elect institutions.

"What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid," he told Ken Clawson, a former aide who saw him in exile after Watergate, and wrote about the visit in the Washington Post. "But if you are reasonably intelligent enough and your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts."

"It's a piece of cake until you get to the top," Nixon said to Clawson. But then "you find that you can't stop playing the game the way you've always played it because it is part of you, and you need it as much as an arm or a leg."

The 3,700 hours of White House tapes show the perceptive and visionary Nixon, but also his rancor, venality, paranoia and bigotry.

Who are they after? Hell, they're not after Haldeman or Ehrlichman or Dean; they are after me, the President! They hate my guts!

Get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats...could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?

I want the break-in...You're to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in....Goddammit get in there and get those files. Blow the safe and get them.


Time offers perspective. Nixon loyalists have sound cause to argue, as he did at the time, that his faults and transgressions were but pale copies of those displayed by other presidents.

The Watergate investigation; the Church committee hearings into U.S. intelligence agency misdeeds, the release of the CIA's secret "family jewels" reports and kindred disclosures have shown Americans the true price of the golden era after World War II. And of just how crazed their leaders have been.

Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman were as cold as Nixon when ordering U.S. bombers to annihilate civilians in war. Ike and Jack and Lyndon had their own Oval Office taping systems, and imperturbably ordered the CIA and the Marines to overthrow the governments of foreign countries. The Kennedy Justice Department tapped phones and passed around tapes of Martin Luther King's sexual encounters. JFK slept with a gangster's moll, and reportedly ordered his intern mistress to fellate a friend in the White House swimming pool while he watched. As an act of dominance, his humiliated aides reported, LBJ made them watch as he defecated on the toilet. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, when soliciting the services of the Mafia in the CIA plots against Fidel Castro, were "running a damn Murder Inc." in the Caribbean, as Johnson memorably put it.

But in all our history, perhaps in all our art, there is no story to rival that of Richard Nixon.

"What is best and weakest in America," wrote Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes, "goes out in reciprocating strength and deficiencies in Richard Nixon."

He was the American innocent, a poor boy who listened to train whistles in the night and rose from desperate anonymity to spectacular triumphs. He was the salesman, the striver, the grafter and grifter—exploiting America's energies and license, twisting and becoming twisted, consumed by its passions. He was the loser, the discard, the tragic hero—caught in his con, destroyed by that same rage and resentment he manipulated in others, and saw within himself, but was incapable of curing.

Heroes have sinned, and been humbled. Iconic commercial empires have crumbled. The country has spawned a spectacular roster of rogues, outlaws and villains. But there is no single scene in politics, law, art or commerce to match that of August 9, 1974—the tormented Nixon standing in the East Room, pouring out his guts in a rambling plea; then climbing up the stairs of Marine One, the last turn, the thrust of arms up into the air, his fingers forming the emblematic Vs.

"Always remember others may hate you," he told the gathering of aides and family, "but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them and then you destroy yourself."

His rise and fall are, literally, operatic. His flaws repel as they fascinate. He inspired devoted loyalty and un-chambered hate—at times, or over time, from the same individual. In his multi-faceted character we see flickers of the demagogue Willie Stark, the salesman Willy Loman, the raging Ahab, the wily Burr, the paranoid Captain Queeg.

The campaign pamphlet from the 1946 election had it right: Richard M. Nixon is One of Us.