Richard Nixon lets us all play the historian. Given that his public life coincided with the emergence of the modern communications industry, we have no shortage of pictures and words on which to base our judgment. You'd think our task would be easy.
The Checkers speech. The kitchen debate with Khrushchev. The Kennedy-Nixon debates. The Watergate press conferences. The resignation speech. The David Frost interviews.
Unlike with other heroes and villains in America's past, we in the modern age feel less reliance on historians for judgments. We can't know for sure what George Washington was really like, or what Billy the Kid was really like. But when it comes to the major figures of our time, we're under no such handicap: We saw what we saw, we heard what we heard.
So how come we didn't all see and hear the same things when it comes to Richard Nixon?
The instinctive reaction is to say that the reflecting pool of partisan politics refracts light and sound.
Though certainly no extremist, Nixon played partisan politics for much of his life. That in itself would have been enough to engender mixed feelings about him. As much as anyone, he reveled in the knockdown, drag-out nature of the skirmishing and preferred bare knuckles to gloves. One is tempted to say this physically awkward, lifelong piano player couldn't fight with his fists, so he forged his manhood by fighting with brains and guile.
To anyone who understands that context, it's an easy leap to understand that being a man and playing hardball meant being not only able to dish it out, but also to take it.
How Nixon loved to dish it out. But he prided himself on taking it, as well. He thought the Kennedys may have cheated him in 1960, but he took it and didn't challenge the election, although some historians think he may have had a case. He decided after the 1972 election that he was going to let his enemies have it. Instead of rising above the fray and saying, "No, we won't play the game that way," Nixon said, "Oh, so \o7 that's\f7 the way they want to play it, huh . . . ?"
Had he chosen the former, no one would be debating his place in contemporary American history.
And though he no doubt thought the media and other enemies stole the presidency from him in 1974, he took it then, too--in the sense that he decided almost immediately that he wouldn't let it destroy him. To have given in would have proved others had gotten the best of him. Better to set sights on another battle ahead--the battle to regain credibility.
And from what we've heard in recent days, much of the outpouring of affection toward Nixon stems from the fact that he "took it." He absorbed the most public humiliation of any President in history, and he took it. And survived it. For large segments of the American population, that amounted to an honorable deed. In some quarters, it accords him hero status.
Indeed, most of the talk since Nixon's death has centered not on politics but on personality. The words heard most frequently to describe him seem to be "complicated," "enigmatic" and "dark side/bright side" splits.
Part of the reason we may find that fascinating today is that it's so unlike the vogue. With celebrities and public figures surrendering to a manic desire to tell us everything about themselves, from repressed memories to their inner child, Nixon appeared not to know or care about such things.
Why should he worry about 15 minutes of fame when he'd had nearly 50 years of it? Just eschewing today's pop culture elevated Nixon's status in recent years.
The country's central ambivalence toward Nixon's life, of course, centers on his presidential years of 1969 to 1974. What came before and what came after only served to frame that critical 5 1/2 years in his and our lives.
Nixon reflected much of American folklore in that he often spoke in homilies--never give up, forgive your enemies, do what you think is right. Those sentiments make up part of our collective national storehouse of "traditional values," and, as such, drew many people to Richard Nixon's side.
The persistent question was whether you believed him or not. Some accepted what he said at face value; others saw it as someone who had memorized the catechism but couldn't live its teachings.
Another crucial factor in public feeling about Nixon is that his presidency occurred during the fermenting of intense generational and racial splits in the country. To the Silent Majority to which he catered, Nixon represented the sentry at the gate--an Establishment bulwark against the longhairs and civil rights activists who seemed intent on turning everything upside down.
To people worried about the future of the country, the politics of Watergate seemed trivial, indeed. As such, many people didn't pay attention. Despite its place in modern political drama, we should remember that many people didn't bother to immerse themselves in the details at the time.