Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Kicking Around An Idea

There is something fundamentally wrong with me. I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

I'm not sure why. It's the history I love and the political scientist in me, I suppose. But I contend that, despite the fact that so much has been written about Tricky Dick, he's one of the most misunderstood figures in modern American history--perhaps all of American history.

Maybe under-understood is a more accurate term. I'm not sure he's misunderstood because I don't think he is someone that could ever be fully understood. Here is a man whose political career literally lasted from the last shots of World War II up through the mid-1970's...and even somehow managed to become marginally relevant up through his death in 1994. I won't go into the particulars of his personal and political life--you can easily find that anywhere--but even erasing the tragedies of Vietnam and Watergate he had a notable life, even more so given his background and upbringing. 

Around 1995 or 1996, many (though not all) of the recordings that Nixon had made during his presidency were released to the public, and I, like a fool, made it the central point of a paper I wrote in college. I listened to reenactments of the highlights of the tapes. I read through droves of biographies and Watergate books. Nixon did some bad things, I wrote, but it's clear from the recordings that his intent was not to commit overt crimes. At most, it was a minor breach of the public trust and--although it didn't excuse his behavior--LBJ and Kennedy had done far worse. I didn't come across as a complete apologist, but I was clearly sympathetic to the man.

A mere week after I submitted my paper--and, notably, before it was graded--they released even more tapes. These tapes were, ah, not so sympathetic. They more or less recorded Nixon driving around the Beltway trying to run over grandmothers with his car and picking up male prostitutes while trying to convince Henry Kissinger to tripsit him for the day. (Or something like that. The details are fuzzy and, besides, mistakes were made.) The thesis of my paper--that Nixon was, at most, a small bit player in the corruption racket that was hung around his neck and most likely simply misunderstood and trapped by circumstance--was completely destroyed. Nixon was clearly calling all the shots I naively dismissed. My professor, in an act of charity that would normally elevate most to sainthood, gave me a stellar grade despite my mortified embarrassment.

I'm currently in the middle of reading Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, where he traces the life of Nixon and wraps the transformation of American culture during his career. It's telling that a man whose political life eclipsed the entire era--he was there during the staid Eisenhower years and ended through the mid-70's as the excesses of free drugs, free love, and inflation caught up with America. Nixon was as much trapped by this transformation as a perpetrator of it. I'm not so sure that, if Watergate had never happened, the story would have had a happy ending.

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