So, now it’s forty years since Richard Nixon resigned. The Peacemaker. Humiliated. Spat on by people not worthy to empty his bedpan. Disgraced for rumors of rumors of rumors. Even now, forty years on, a genuine genius, a man of character, George Will, an American icon of intelligence, gets roped into repeating the hoary chestnut that Nixon purposely prolonged the war in Vietnam before he was elected in 1968 to deprive Hubert Humphrey of the prize. There’s no story there except that even so brilliant a prize as Will repeats pool hall gossip about Nixon that has been disproved a million times, most recently in Pat Buchanan’s superb new book on the 1968 campaign, The Greatest Comeback.
The seductiveness of urinating on the grave of a historic figure of peace is apparently overpowering.
But who was Richard Nixon? A man who came from modest means. A man who saw family tragedy in childhood. A politician who was smeared over and over by tricky smear artists who called Nixon a smear artist and “Tricky Dick” — an almost funny nickname for probably the least tricky politician of our lifetimes. A man who was sneered at by the high poobahs within his own party, who was endlessly under attack from the inherited money wing of the GOP and sometimes also threatened by the real reactionaries.
A man who never had it easy.
Probably the hardest working Vice President ever, only to be jeered at by his boss. Probably the only VP to even stand up to a foreign dictator and not get backed down.
In many ways he had the presidency stolen from him in 1960 by the master criminals of machine Democrat politics in Illinois. He refused to start a fight over it — q.v., Al Gore. He was never once invited to the White House by the bootlegger’s son and daughter-in-law who passed for Beautiful People in the days of Camelot.
Sneered at and smeared by Lyndon Johnson, manufacturer of the disastrous Vietnam War.
Endlessly snickered at and jeered at by the New York and L.A. and D.C. Beautiful People who made hatred of Nixon a condition for entry into the world of the Beautiful People.
In some ways, Richard Nixon epitomized the uncool. He didn’t get high and he didn’t condescend and he didn’t act better than people who worked for a living. He — like his instructor, George Wallace — saw that the heart of America was hard working, law abiding, willing to fight and die for the nation — and instinctively felt himself part of that heart. Richard Nixon never had it easy.
He was a thorough virtuoso in many fields — politics, foreign policy, the culture — but he never flaunted his brains. He was a worker. He was not a con man. He earned his living. He never had it easy.
What did Richard Nixon want out of life? Like all of us, he wanted to be loved and to be famous. He wanted to be powerful, and he was willing to assume the burdens that went with that. He did not see himself as Comedian in Chief or Talk Show Guest in Chief. No, he was the boss of an immense government and he knew where the buck stopped.
He did not see his goal in life as being to reign as the coolest kid on the block, unlike Mr. Obama. His job was the far more difficult chore: bringing a generation of peace to a war weary world, with a Congress, a media, an academy, and the BPs all arrayed against the kid who never had it easy.
In our offices as speechwriters, we all had books of anecdotes RN loved. Usually they were about his love of his mother. There were also phrases he detested, such as “to implement.”. We were never to use those.
But the point he wanted us to get across as often as we could was that RN wanted to bequeath a “generation of peace” and also “a lasting structure of peace.”
To us speechwriting peons, the phrase was a cliché, an impossible dream. But it turned out to be what Nixon was all about. Who was Richard Nixon? A peacemaker who never had it easy.
He was by no means afraid to use force to get it. FDR had used overwhelmingly blood force to get to a lasting peace in Europe and we applaud him for it and we should. Abraham Lincoln used it to end slavery and reunite the Union. That was far more controversial then and still is now. But we revere Lincoln.
Nixon was in that mold. He would use force to end the war in Vietnam and get back the POWs. He would use the means of force to save Israel and to bring a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel.
He used diplomacy and the implicit threat of force to open China and encircle the USSR and bring a whole new world of opportunity to a billion and a half people in the Far East and in Europe.
He left us the peace he was aching for. He did it under relentless assault by the rioters and the thugs and the moral equivalencers and the new black racists. He made sure that he brought peace at home and in Asia.
This was a leader at work, and at the noblest of work — making peace.
So, forty years ago today, RN stood in the East Room with his wife, Patricia, ever beautiful, his goddess daughter, Julie, her husband, David Eisenhower, Tricia, a blond beauty, and her husband, Ed Cox, and he gave the most honest remarks I have ever heard a President make. It was a howl of protest that he had been forced to leave office with much of his work incomplete. It was a shriek of sorrow that the Republic and the Constitution had been undone by a media/Beautiful People coup. It was a cry to his mother to thank her for the strength she had given him to seek peace. Very little was said — maybe nothing — about how he had been laid low for misdemeanors that paled before those of a man who had lied to start a war — LBJ, a man who had brought call girls to the White House and brought us to the brink of nuclear war by his clumsiness, and a man, Harry S Truman — a fine President — who had sent Americans to die in Korea without decent clothing or arms, tricked into the war by the traitors within his government.
Most of it was loving advice to us on the White House staff and our families. I was there with my friend, Pat Kane, and a few feet away sat my mother and father. My father was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. I believe we might have been the only father/son team to ever work on the White House staff simultaneously. Certainly, we were the most blessed, able to have lunch together two or three times a week. My mother wore a look of anguish such as I had never seen before or since. Just as if her father was being executed before her eyes. She loved Mr. and Mrs. Nixon with a searing, white hot love. I am certain my mother would have committed murder for them. My father was in tears. I was crying and chewing gum at the same time.
I listened. I watched. I sobbed. Then, RN said, “It’s not good-bye. The French have a word for it. ‘Au revoir.’ We’ll see you again.”
He said, “It’s always a new beginning. The young must know it. The old must know it. Always a new beginning.”
Richard Nixon on that day was the victim of what my mother always called a “media coup” and it was. Nothing terribly serious was ever proved against him. The media whipped up a climate of hatred, like the orchestrated “two minute hates” in 1984. The strategy worked and miraculously for the KGB, their number one enemy was gone.
We watched RN’s helicopter take off. We waved. We applauded until our hands bled. I felt as if my life were over. Secretary of Commerce Fred Dent — who seemed like a figure of immense importance and carrying the wisdom of age — saw my tears. He patted me on the back and said, “It will be all right, Benjy.”
Fred was about 51 that day. RN was 62. I am now 69. On that day I was 29 and wished I were dead. I walked over to my father’s office and had lunch with him and my mother and Pat. Then I went to my office to get my day’s orders from my wonderful boss, Dave Gergen, to commiserate with my genius colleagues, Aram Bakshian, John R. Coyne, the utterly loyal master of speechwriting, Ken Khachigian, the cool, brainy Ray Price, the super researcher, Anne Morgan. I have kept in touch with most of them.
RN was right. It was always a new beginning for me. I can barely start to recall all I have done. But now, I am 69, as I just said. It is a good age and I have a good wife and a good family and a good dog and a good boat on a lake in North Idaho called Lake Pendoreille. But in a way nothing has been right about America since a part of the nation not even mentioned in the original Constitution deposed The Peacemaker and assumed unto itself the role of Supreme Political Bureau of the United States of America.
As for Richard Nixon, as my friend John Coyne told me today, his enemies are leaving the scene and maybe some day historians will start to tell the truth about Richard Nixon, The Peacemaker, the man who never had it easy. In the meantime, we who were in that room, especially his family, know we were in the presence of a good and godly man. ‘Au revoir,’ Mr. President. We’ll see you again.
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