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Richard Nixon at 100: The Man Who Matters

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Nixon's unprecedented departure has had ongoing significance. Watergate spawned the politics of payback and scandal that have marked the past 40 years. Certainly it has burdened every president confronted with questions involving the suffix "gate," "gotcha" journalism, "what did the president know and when did he know it" and other Watergate cliches. But singularly for Nixon, we remember his disgrace without honor. In one of his periodic attempts to "return," Nixon said that "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." What in the world could he have been thinking?

After his resignation, Nixon poured his energies into his final campaign -- the battle for history. Alexander Butterfield, the man who revealed the existence of the White House taping system -- which, of course, was Nixon's undoing -- described the president as a man always conscious of his history. "[T]he president is very history oriented and history conscious about the role he is going to play," Butterfield testified to the Senate Watergate Committee in July 1973, and added that Nixon "is not at all subtle about it, or about admitting it." 

History very much mattered to Nixon. No different from other leaders who realized that when their power faded, they had only their history, which they desperately tried to control. Nixon installed the White House taping system in a vain belief that he would capture the authoritative version of his presidency. Ironically, those tapes sealed his downfall, and to this day they continue to diminish the man and his achievements.

Nixon offered the paradox of an intelligent yet curiously flawed man who left a divided legacy, often resulting from his self-destructive actions. His lament over Watergate ("I gave them a sword and they stuck it in," he told journalist David Frost. "And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I'd been in their position I'd have done the same thing") however self-pitying, underlines the fundamental truth that he was his own worst enemy. He was a man of great power who left a stamp on his time and beyond, yet petty enough to accomplish his own ruin. 

Speaking at his East Room "farewell" just before resigning, Nixon offered the most prescient judgment of himself: "Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them -- and then you destroy yourself." 


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Stanley Kutler is the author The Wars of Watergate (Norton), Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Free Press), The American Inquisition: Cold War Political Trials (Hill & Wang), and numerous other books and articles. He taught constitutional and (more...)
 
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