Richard M. Nixon seemed strangely detached on Aug. 9, 1974, the day he resigned as President of the United States. His farewell speech was so rambling and emotional that some feared he was losing touch with reality. He nearly wept as he summoned the memory of his dead mother--a "saint," he called her--and then suggested that Watergate was nothing more than a test of his greatness.
"We think sometimes when things don't go the right way, when we suffer a defeat, that all has ended," he said. "Not true. It is only a beginning, always. Greatness comes not when things always go good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes. Because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain."
A noble sentiment, indeed, but coming as it did in the wake of a House Judiciary Committee vote to impeach him, it sounded more like the blather of a terribly distraught man who could not face up to the humiliation he had brought on himself and his nation. After all, no other American President had been forced to resign. Most Americans did not see the Watergate scandal as a test of Nixon's greatness. On the contrary, it was a measure of how far he had fallen.
But even today, Nixon clings to the notion that the failure of his presidency was just another obstacle he had to overcome. Over the past 16 years since he resigned, he has never wavered from the belief that history will judge him to be a great man--that the deep valley of Watergate will not obscure the high mountains of achievement in foreign policy.
His sense of destiny has not only sustained Nixon through long hours of private anguish, it has also been the motivation behind his efforts over the past decade to gradually refurbish his reputation. Indeed, it is the reason for his re-emergence as a public figure.
Although Nixon's name will long be synonymous with the abuse of presidential power, time and his own tenacity have permitted him to shed much of the aura of shame he carried with him when he left the White House that day. In the minds of many Americans, he has finally transformed himself into the elder statesman he wanted to be.
The opening of the Nixon library is another step in the process he believes will restore him to an honored place in the American pantheon.
In his own mind, Nixon is much like Winston Churchill, who returned to lead Britain through World War II after spending eight years as a discredited former chancellor of the exchequer. As he writes in his most recent book, "In the Arena," Nixon first learned about this "withdrawal-return syndrome" in the historical writings of Arnold Toynbee, who described how many men such as Thucydides, Mohammed, Confucius, Peter the Great, Garibaldi and Lenin had been transformed into heroes by withdrawing after a defeat.
It is not surprising that Nixon would cast himself in the mold of these great men. As President, he was responsible for some important developments, including U.S.-Soviet detente and the opening of relations with China. Indeed, his stature in other countries far exceeds his reputation in the United States. And even after nearly two decades in retirement, he is a vigorous 77-year-old who thrives on politics and policy.
Nor is it unusual that the ardor of the Nixon-haters has cooled somewhat.
While many Americans will always see Nixon as a pariah who--in the words of Washington Post political columnist David Broder--"ought to be living his life in private and in disgrace," our collective national memory is short. Many of today's adults were only in grammar school the day Nixon resigned. Even some older people who lived through the agony of Watergate now remember it strictly as a burglary.
More recent presidential scandals such as the Iran-Contra affair have also helped to obscure the crimes of Watergate. In the eyes of many political scientists, the deeds of Oliver North and John Poindexter were much worse than anything done by H.R. Haldeman or John Ehrlichman. Ironically, Watergate itself may have diminished the importance of Nixon's mistakes by permanently raising the level of cynicism among the American people about government and the honesty of their leaders.
Moreover, Nixon himself has done his best over the years to minimize the extraordinary dimensions of the Watergate scandal and portray himself as a valuable player in American foreign policy. No doubt he felt a sense of satisfaction in 1986 when Newsweek magazine first recognized the success of his efforts with a Nixon cover story titled "He's Back."
As he sees it, Watergate was nothing more than a political struggle between Nixon and his enemies. His major fault was allowing himself to be preoccupied with foreign policy and failing to pay sufficient attention to the growing controversy surrounding the break-in.