Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Still in Nixon's Grip

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas eulogizes Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.

I will always remember the moment when, 20 years ago today, I heard that Richard Nixon had died.

It wasn't one of those milestone moments people ask about decades later — like where one was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Nixon had suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma. It was not unexpected, and, besides, at 81, he was nearly twice as old as JFK had been when he died.

Still, you must understand. Nixon was president when I was a child. I remember seeing war protests on TV in which hate and anger were mostly what were on display. Judging from the defensive responses I saw and heard coming from the Nixon White House, it was clear there was no love lost between the sides. I never really understood why so many people were surprised when the extent of Nixon's response came out via the secret tape recordings that ultimately destroyed his presidency.

It all was a logical reaction — from Nixon's paranoid perspective.

Anyway, Nixon really shaped and defined the times in which I grew up. When he was president, I honestly couldn't imagine a time when he would not be president. I could not imagine a time when America would be free of his grip.

And then he resigned. The unthinkable not only became thinkable, it became fact.

Nearly 20 years later, he was dead. I remember feeling astonished by the relentless passage of time.

There have been seven presidencies since Nixon left the White House. Five of them, including the incumbent in 1994, already had become entries in American history texts by the time Nixon died.

And now 20 years have passed since Nixon's death. Two more presidents have been elected; a third will be elected in a couple of years. I am humbled anew by the speed of the passage of time.

Five years ago, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of Nixon's death, I wrote that he was "deeply flawed." I still believe that.

I believed that 20 years ago tonight when I heard he had died. I was living in Norman, Okla. It was a Friday evening, and I was watching my TV. Suddenly, the channel I was watching interrupted the broadcast with the news bulletin that Nixon had died.

He had been in the news all week — since suffering a stroke on Monday. At first, it seemed likely he would recover, even though his movement and vision were impaired, but he lapsed into a coma and died that Friday.

It was the first time a former president had died in more than two decades. It doesn't happen often. Only two former presidents have died since Nixon died, but it could happen at any time. The fact that two former presidents are in their late 80s (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, who will be 90 in June) makes the likelihood of another presidential funeral in the near future a distinct possibility; Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are in their 60s and seem to be in good health, but they could be vulnerable as well.

In keeping with his wishes, Nixon did not receive a full state funeral, which would have called for his body to lie in state at the Capitol and probably some kind of funeral service in Washington. Everything was done in California. The five presidents who had succeeded him were there, along with many of his foes and allies from his years in Washington.

Both of his vice presidents were there. Gerald Ford, of course, had succeeded him when he resigned, but Spiro Agnew had been his first vice president, and he was there to pay his respects.

It was, I believe, the last public appearance by Ronald Reagan. His affliction with Alzheimer's was announced that year, and he was the next former president to die, a little more than 10 years later.

On the 20th anniversary of Nixon's death, it seems that no one is writing about him. He has been left behind with the other relics from the 20th century.

Ironically, Nixon's presidency continues to influence American policy and American spending in the 21st century. The president who sought "peace with honor" in Vietnam launched a war on drugs that America continues to fight and lose because it can't seem to find an honorable way out — and Americans continue to die because of it.

In so many ways, America is still in his grip.

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