THERE was a certain awkwardness in the air in the days following
Richard Nixon's death. The questions lingered. How does a nation mourn
its only president ever forced to resign from office? And what would be
Then the cautious and predictable assessments came weighing in,
from Republican pundits who distanced themselves, from Democratic
pundits, many of whom after 20 years still exhibited partisan outrage at
"Tricky Dick." Nixon, they said, despite his accomplishments, would
always be remembered for the Watergate break-in.
Yet the mood at Nixon's funeral last week was nothing less than a
"May the day of judging Nixon on anything less than his entire life
and career come to a close," urged President Clinton, who himself came
of political age during the Watergate era.
What is one to make of the rehabilitation of Nixon, the once
despised leader who resigned in disgrace and is now honored by a
president who once opposed him?
Nixon was, after all, an authoritarian president whose fatal flaw
was to assume he was above the law. "When the president does it, it's
not illegal," he once said. Such an attitude of "L'etat c'est moi"
didn't sit well with a younger generation more inclined to question than
to obey and who were horrified by this presidency that came to epitomize
the excesses of authority: the killings at Kent State University, the
Watergate break-in, the forced draft.
Though he carried 49 states, I knew few of my generation who voted
for him, or who would have voted for him had they been old enough back
then. Rather, it was my parents^ generation who elected him. Among them
was my father who, having arrived in this country after the upheavals of
post-war Europe, supported Nixon primarily for his anti-communist
stance. For him, a threat dismissed as red-baiting by others had turned
out to be all too real. In the worldwide scheme of things, for him,
Watergate was insignificant.
I, myself, born during the prosperous years of the Fifties and
coming of age during the idealistic Sixties, did not have that
experience of those dark war years that loomed so large in my father's
generation. What I remember instead is the optimism of my era: the war
on poverty, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, a general
philosophy of goodwill and infinite possibility _ and the incongruity of
a remote war.
Clearly, there was a gap between the formative experiences of the
youth of that era and those of their parents.
"Don't trust anyone over 30" was the slogan of those times, and
there was no one who better articulated that dividing line between the
long-haired, tie-dyed, idealistic, rebellious youth and their
conventional, conservative parents than Nixon _ a reticent formal man,
often portrayed walking along the beach in a suit and wingtip shoes.
His was not a smooth personality in an age where TV slickness and
glib repartee were becoming a measure of a man. In a way, he was our
parents. In appearance and manner, our relaxed, blue-jeaned generation
judged him ill at ease, his suit jacket buttoned up as armor, his
trousers hitched too tight, his stiff wave, his inability to make (or
impatience with) the inconsequential small talk that has now become the
stuff of politics.
Twenty years ago, we said bitterly that we would never come to
terms with this authoritarian man, whose actions were marked by a
stubbornness and point-blank refusal to admit he had done wrong. It
was this tenacity that made Nixon a tragic and disgraced figure
in our eyes. Yet in this very tenaciousness, he found his redemption.
He did not give in to bitterness.
"Those who hate you don't win," he said, "unless you hate them _
and then you destroy yourself."
In his later years, he shared his extensive knowledge and expertise
with all who would listen, the albatross of Watergate weighing on his
neck. In the process, this prodigal father emerged as human, a softened
and humbled man, sharing what he knows.
And so, with the passage of time, we heard a different tally of his
credits: his determination, his knowledge of foreign affairs, his love
of his family.
Surprisingly, Nixon seemed more at ease _ than he ever had been in
the spotlight _ in his new role as a mentor to the very generation that
once defied him.
Some still say they will never come to terms with Nixon,
remembering above all his ruthlessness and divisiveness. Yet it is clear
he and the times have since moved on. And on that designated day of
mourning last week, those who had not buried the hatchet seemed more
than the exception than the rule.
(c) Olya Thompson in The Bergen Record