For my blog post today about Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, I’ll use as my starting-point some things that Stephen Ambrose says on pages 574-575.
“Bu 1990 [Nixon] had successfully created an impression that the only thing he and his Administration had ever done that was wrong was Watergate, and that Watergate was not much more than an inexplicable break-in followed by a badly managed but completely understandable attempt to cover-up…So many believed him that his version became the standard version of Watergate. By 1990 people born after 1965 asked of Nixon, ‘What did he do that was so terrible?’ They read about Jack Kennedy and the womanizing, about Bobby Kennedy and the wiretapping, about Lyndon Johnson and his use of the FBI; they had lived through the Reagan Administration and Iran-contra; they were living through and paying for the savings and loan scandal. No wonder they wanted to know what Nixon had done that was so terrible…He was not, after all, remotely like Hitler or Stalin, a man to be forever loathed. Americans want to be proud of their Presidents, and Nixon was one of them. He had done some good, some bad, as they all had.”
When the Watergate scandal was going on, people told Nixon that history would look kinder on him years down the road. Nixon replied by saying something that Ambrose considered a fine example of Nixonian realism: that it depends on who writes the history! But Nixon himself, in his memoirs, does not appear to have that Nixonian realism when it comes to history, for he says that history will judge harshly those who persecuted him with respect to Watergate.
How does history judge Richard Nixon? I agree with much of Ambrose’s assessment on pages 574-575. Whenever I go on Youtube and watch a clip of Nixon, or listen to an except of one of the Nixon tapes, or watch a scene from Oliver Stone’s movie on the 37th President, I see plenty of pro-Nixon comments in the comments-section. They praise Nixon for his kindness, or his humanity, or his brilliance, or his policies. I see this among Republicans, but also among many on the Left, who think that Nixon was a lot more progressive than the Republicans of today.
But my impression is that Nixon is not completely out of the dog-house! All sorts of political scandals remind people of Nixon, and not in a good way. Consider, for example, the IRS’s recent treatment of conservative groups, which has been likened to Nixon’s attempts to use the IRS against political enemies. Plus, stories come out about Nixon that don’t present him in a favorable light. The charge that Nixon sabotaged the Paris Peace talks in 1968 for political gain, and thereby prolonged the Vietnam War, has been around for a while, but the charge has been highlighted more than a couple of times in recent time. It’s hard to post something positive about Richard Nixon, when one could easily challenge me by appealing to what Nixon supposedly did to the 1968 Paris Peace talks.