Richard Nixon Revisited
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2010; all rights reserved
Rarely during any historical era has an individual elicited a breadth of public reactions so polarized and perhaps even more rarely are the media reports of a person’s life and activities under such circumstances so one-sided, a factor which strongly hints that a true portrait of the man is yet to be drawn.
Current popular perception of Nixon seems to be that he was a “crook” and the major event associated with him is the botched Watergate burglary, “expletives deleted” and eighteen minutes missing from a tape recording. However, my personal involvement with politics, history, sociology, research, pedagogy and life has made it clear to me that context is critical in arriving at accurate evaluations and that as far as Nixon goes, most academics and virtually all journalists have seemingly thrown context out the window. Context might paint a very different picture of this particular man.
“What context?” might be an appropriate initial first response.
Well, for starters, how about his contemporaries? Contemporaries not temporally but as holders of the presidency during times of war, real war, not just military adventurism. Men such as James Madison, James Polk, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ, George W. Bush and Barrack Obama. Which of them avoided domestic espionage involving persons reasonably suspected of sympathizing with the perceived enemy? Ranking their reactions, where would Nixon fall?
The answer always seems to be, at least where Nixon is concerned, that others’ wrongful acts can never justify his regardless of whether or not their actions were more egregious. But in the comparative historical perspective we use to learn from our past in order to avoid future errors, that rejoinder seems to be misplaced.
There’s an urban myth attributed to Nixon (or perhaps it’s an accurate quote) to the effect that “just because one is paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.” Even in the context of the rabid political climate since the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, no president in modern history has been more consistently, actively and thoroughly vilified than Nixon and that started long before he was elected president. That such vilification affected him and made him more like the caricature painted by his enemies seems undeniable but it also rationally explains many of his actions and reactions. And of, course, that played directly into the hands of those who, justifiably or not, hated him.
On the other hand, that doesn’t help academicians or students seeking for truly useful information; information on which to base current lessons and future actions, with which to accurately evaluate the past in order to understand the present and with which to adequately plan for the future.
The world needs an accurate portrayal and analysis of Richard Nixon. His character, personality, intelligence and experiences for good or ill are too valuable to waste satisfying a lust for misguided vengeance.