Politics

Richard Nixon’s 100th birthday

Richard Nixon's 100th birthday

For some of us not-as-young-as-we-used-to-be reporters who actually met and talked to Richard Nixon, it is a bit hard to believe that today would have been the 37th president’s 100th birthday.

While the liberal media is sure to focus on the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon becoming the only U.S. president to resign the office, others will toast the California Republican with warmth. At the Mayflower Hotel Wednesday evening, the Richard Nixon Foundation and the Nixon family will host a centennial birthday and gala for the man close colleagues and friends refer to as simply “RN.” Among those on the dinner committee were such alumnae of the Nixon White House as Steve Bull, Dwight Chapin, Ron Walker, and Terrence O’Donnell. Chairing the dinner committee is Henry Kissinger, whom Nixon made national security adviser and later secretary of state.

For conservatives, the relationship with Nixon is less a romance than, well, a tenuous relationship. A small-town lawyer like Lincoln, Nixon caught conservative eyes in 1946 when he defeated a seemingly unbeatable Democratic congressman on a hard-line anti-Communist platform. As a Member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948, the Californian was the pivotal figure in making sure that the sensational charges of Whittaker Chambers against Alger Hiss and other Communists in high government positions received a hearing in one of the genuine political dramas of post-war America. Elected to the Senate over Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950, tapped as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate two years later at age 39, Nixon had one of the most meteoric political rises in U.S. history.

Beaten in 1960 for the presidency by John F. Kennedy in one of the closest-ever races and then in a bid for governor of California in 1962, Nixon appeared washed up before he turned 50. But in assisting candidates such as 1964 GOP nominee Barry Goldwater and hundreds of Republicans vying for lower offices, the former vice president became a “comeback kid” a generation before Bill Clinton. Indeed, his rise from the political ashheap to the presidency in 1968 is a much-studied textbook case for any defeated politician seeking resurrection.

Although many wish he had simply resumed the bombing of North Vietnam in 1969 that Lyndon Johnson had stopped in 1968, Nixon did so four years later and brought the U.S. role in the Vietnam War to an honorable ending. South Vietnam remained free and “Vietnamization”—the training of South Vietnamese troops to defend their country without foreign assistance—was working. Only after Nixon was driven from office and the Democratic-controlled Congress cut off aid to the embattled country did the Communist North finally triumph. The “domino theory” that Nixon and others warned of became the domino fact, as Cambodia and much of Southeast Asia fell to Communism and became a giant gulag in the 1970s.

President Nixon did disappoint his conservative friends on several fronts: creating such bureaucracies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the punitively anti-business OSHA; imposing wage-and-price controls in 1971 (although both he and then-Treasury Secretary John Connally later conceded this was a mistake), and naming Harry Blackmun to the Supreme Court in 1969 after two Southern nominees were rejected for confirmation by the Senate. Many conservatives were also angered when the longtime anti-Communist in the White House suddenly announced plans to visit Communist China in 1971, creating fears that the opening to Mao’s dictatorship on the mainland would lead to the fall of America’s longtime friend, the Republic of China on Taiwan. With UN Ambassador George H.W. Bush leading the charge, the Nixon administration fought unsuccessfully to keep Taiwan in the U.N. and when the Carter administration recognized Beijing and turned its back on Taiwan in 1978, former President Nixon told friends he was furious and this was never what he intended. In later years, however, many of the same critical conservatives agreed that Nixon’s outreach to mainland China took advantage of the rift that country was having with the Soviet Union and probably assisted in the eventual downfall of the other major Communist colossus.

In fact, it was disappointment with Nixon on the right that led many conservative leaders — notably William F. Buckley and Human Events editors Tom Winter and Allan Ryskind — to suspend their support of the president and back the insurgent primary challenge from Ohio Rep. John M. Ashbrook.

Conservatives, though, cheered Nixon’s naming of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court in 1971 and the appointment of other favorites on the right, such as White House staffers Pat Buchanan and Bruce Herschensohn (both of whom were with the president when he resigned in 1974), and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Casper Weinberger (who moved to slash spending on domestic programs in Nixon’s second term). They also recalled warmly how he put U.S. forces on red alert as Israel was being attacked by Egypt in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and many Israelis, including the late Prime Minister Golda Meir, hailed Nixon for nothing less than rescuing their country in its darkest hour.

“Nixon’s bad press” is what the late historian Theodore White called the major problem of the 37th president. Uncomfortable on TV and with reporters in general and highly agitated by hostile cartoons and editorials in major liberal outlets, Nixon was a target of much of the Fourth Estate for most of his political life. Only after he was in retirement and re-emerging through serious books on policy and discussions of the world situations did the media finally warm up to Richard Nixon.

The last time I saw him was in 1992, when he spoke at an event in Washington on behalf of our mutual friend Herschensohn, who was then running for the U.S. Senate from California. “nterestingly, this was the same Senate seat Nixon himself had held and, as he said that night, “if my career had not taken some unexpected turns, I would today be seeking my eighth term.” I thanked him for calling a past member of my Georgetown Kiwanis Club (who had served in the House with Nixon) and cheering him up before his death from cancer. He acknowledged my thanks and then, as I turned to go, he grabbed my arm and said: “We’ve saved freedom abroad. The question now is can we save freedom at home.”

As always, Richard Nixon gave one something to think about and ponder. A happy 100th, sir.

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