Monday, August 9, 2010

A Unique Day in American History

I guess there is not much to be said of Richard Nixon's farewell to his White House staff 36 years ago today.

I didn't have anything to say about it last year, on the 35th anniversary, which was probably a more appropriate time to do it.

I mean, I wrote about his address to the nation the night before in which he announced his intention to resign. And then, a year ago today, I wrote about the inauguration of his successor, Gerald Ford — and the national sense of relief that followed and persisted for a month, until Ford announced his pardon of Nixon.

But I wrote nothing about his farewell address. In hindsight, that might have been a mistake because, whether he realized it or not, I think Nixon, who may have been the most private of presidents, revealed a lot about himself that day.

After Ford announced that pardon in September 1974, there was plenty of speculation that a deal had been cut between Nixon and Ford before Nixon would agree to resign, but no evidence has ever been presented that could elevate such talk to a specific charge.

A month earlier, though, on Aug. 9, 1974, I recall hearing no talk of a pardon. I do recall watching Nixon's farewell speech to his White House staff — and wondering, at times, if Nixon was going to come unglued on national television.

He certainly appeared to be tottering along on the edge of mental collapse — and who could blame him? He made his reputation as a fighter who had risen above a series of crises in his life to become president of the United States — and then, after a landslide re–election, his second term had been consumed by the scandal that ultimately consumed him.

Nixon always tried to present a facade in public, very seldom letting his true emotions show. But he had a bitter relationship with the press that sometimes slipped through.

Such was the case in 1962, on Election Night, when Nixon lost the gubernatorial campaign in California, and told the reporters, in an impromptu news conference, that they wouldn't have him to "kick around" anymore.

That was his last press conference, he told them.

But it wasn't. Six years later, Nixon was running for president again. The outcome was another close one, like Nixon's loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960 — but this time Nixon was the winner.

I've heard it said that Nixon became increasingly secretive because of his experiences — the charges that almost forced him to withdraw from Dwight Eisenhower's ticket in 1952; his perceived mistreatment by the press in 1960 and 1962 and the 1968 presidential campaign; the hostility he believed was directed at him by opponents of his policies in Vietnam. Those experiences, I have been told, contributed significantly to the atmosphere that led Nixon and his loyalists into the quagmire of Watergate.

And, given the constantly growing adversarial relationship that existed between Nixon and the press, it was probably only a matter of time before Nixon lashed out following the famed "Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973.

And then, a few weeks later, when the heckles of "Crook!" from the ever–present protesters outside the White House had reached a crescendo, Nixon held a press conference and asserted, to a stunned nation, that he wasn't a crook.

It was an astonishing moment in American history, the kind of moment I had never experienced prior to that time and don't expect to experience again. I was quite young at the time, but I had learned enough to know that, even if one disagreed with the president, even if one thought the president was deceitful, one would never suggest he was a "crook." One might as well question the honesty of the pope.

But Nixon was an exception to the rule. Even many of those who voted for him weren't sure about his integrity. As a result, he didn't come into office — or take the oath a second time four years later — with the national sense of good will that usually follows an election.

He was a narcissist, paranoid. Writer Richard Reeves said that Nixon "assumed the worst in people, and he brought out the worst in them." He seemed to win elections, even landslides, by default — because he wasn't as bad (in the voters' eyes) as his opponent.

As I say, I was young at the time, but it seems to me that Nixon's presidency may well have been ground zero in the emergence of dirty politics. Those tactics really began to evolve into what we see today when Lee Atwater ran George H.W. Bush's campaign in 1988 — and gave American politics the Willie Horton ad.

By comparison, Nixon's campaign tactics — indeed, the whole ham–handed attempt to burglarize the Democrats' national committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel — seem amateurish, even primitive.

Anyway less than a year being re–elected by a landslide, Nixon resigned the presidency and returned to California in disgrace.

On the day that happened — 36 years ago today — Nixon delivered a farewell address that has been largely overlooked in the histories I have read of that time. He spoke of disappointment and sadness and loss. He spoke of resiliency, and he urged his listeners to remember that "Others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."

I've heard many things about Nixon — that he had been drinking heavily in the days leading up to his resignation, that he didn't get any sleep in his last night in the White House — but, if that was true, he didn't appear to be drunk or unusually tired (by that time, most people had grown accustomed to seeing a hollow, worn–out look in his eyes and his famous jowls sagging more than ever).

As time passed and I had occasion to reflect on Nixon's farewell address, it seemed to me that he may have had an epiphany because he finally seemed to understand, in a blinding moment of clarity, what had brought his presidency down.

It hadn't been the press. It hadn't been his "enemies." It had been Nixon himself, driven by the hatred he felt for those he believed hated him.

You can debate whether that was true, whether that was really what destroyed the Nixon presidency. But I believe Nixon lived the rest of his days convinced of it.

When you think of all the things he said and wrote in his post–presidential years, what other conclusion can one reach?

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