History is full of “what ifs,” with few more compelling than those surrounding our 37th president, Richard Nixon.
What if the offices of the Democratic National Committee at Washington, D.C.’s Watergate hotel were not broken into by a motley band of Nixon loyalists June 17, 1972? Or if the break-in had not been discovered? What if Nixon had not had a taping system set up in the Oval Office ready to catch him discussing a cover-up? And what if he had not had to resign in disgrace Aug. 9, 1974, 40 years ago this Saturday, one step ahead of impeachment and, perhaps, imprisonment?
Chances are posterity would be viewing Nixon in a more favorable light. Regularly placed by historians in the bottom rank of presidents alongside the ignominious likes of Warren Harding and James Buchanan, with four decades of hindsight and the dust having long-since settled, it’s now possible to see some of Nixon’s accomplishments while he was commander in chief in sharper relief.
He did bring the Vietnam War to an end, though it almost certainly dragged on much longer than necessary in a futile effort to find an “honorable” exit. But, the onetime fervent anti-communist brought about the opening to China and improved relations with the Soviet Union, signing the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, thereafter known as SALT I. In the 20 years he lived after fleeing from the White House, Nixon tried to recast himself as an elder statesman and foreign policy sage, and he did have a gift for looking at foreign policy realistically. One can only imagine what he would have made of the pie-in-the-sky fantasies that led to our stumbling adventure in Iraq a decade ago.
Though he was said to be bored by domestic policy, Nixon helped enact a menu of laws at home that improved the lives of his fellow countrymen appreciably. He affixed his signature to the Clean Air Act in 1970 and, two years later, the Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency which has lately become a pinata for the tea partiers who now populate the Republican Party, was created on his watch. He signed civil rights legislation that improved the lot of women and minorities, and even proposed health reform legislation that resembles the Affordable Care Act. Nixon’s plan, which languished on Capitol Hill, would have had an employer mandate and subsidies for low-income workers. It also would have forbidden insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. The pity is some Democrats scoffed at it because they believed it didn’t go far enough.
Also, the Republican Party platform in 1972, the year Nixon won re-election in a landslide, called for tighter controls on guns. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it now, but the GOP was once not the exclusive handmaiden of uncompromising gun zealots.
But the criminality and venality of Watergate can’t be washed away, and so Nixon will never be viewed as a good president, never mind a great one. The envy, paranoia and the wounded meanness of his spirit were primary contributors to his downfall. Perhaps more than any other president, Richard Nixon must always be viewed as a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense, someone who had greatness within his grasp, but lost it because of the demons in his psyche and the flaws in his character.
And if the Vietnam War wasn’t sufficient to make people lose faith in their government, Watergate added fuel to the fire. Forty years later, we are still cynical about our leaders and mistrustful of Washington, D.C.
That’s a stain, like Lady Macbeth’s “damned spot,” we still can’t wash away.