Michael Nelson: Nixon's Final Campaign

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Nelson is a professor of political science at Rhodes College. He is author, with John Mason, of How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation (Louisiana State University Press, 2007) and, with Sidney Milkis, The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2007 (CQ Press, 2007).]

Richard Nixon ran more campaigns for national office than any other American except Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he tied. In the six presidential elections from 1952 to 1972, Nixon was on the ballot five times, as the Republican nominee for either vice president (1952 and 1956) or president (1960, 1968, 1972). He was elected twice as Dwight D. Eisenhower's running mate and twice as the head of the ticket, losing only to John F. Kennedy, in 1960. Another of Nixon's national political campaigns, his battle to hold on to the presidency during the Watergate crisis, ended in a second defeat. He resigned in August 1974 in the face of certain impeachment and removal.

But what of Nixon's final campaign, the one he waged from 1974 until his death, 20 years later, to be remembered as a statesman and foreign-policy maestro rather than as a crook and subverter of constitutional democracy? All of Nixon's earlier campaigns had clear outcomes: He either won the office he sought or lost it. A recent flurry of Nixon books and a smash London and Broadway play about his famous post-presidential interviews with the British television-talk-show impresario David Frost indicate that the returns from Nixon's last campaign are still coming in. And the outcome may remain too close to call for quite some time....

Well, does Nixon seem likely to prevail in his final campaign, the one for historical vindication? Certainly he played his post-presidential hand skillfully, starting with the Frost interviews. For 20 years after he resigned, Nixon avoided partisan politics and controversial domestic issues, made foreign trips and wrote well-received books about foreign policy, and confidentially advised presidents who consulted him on world affairs. Bill Clinton was especially smitten, and, at Nixon's funeral — attended by all five living presidents — spoke the words Nixon would most have wanted the world to hear: "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close."

Historians still rank Nixon low among presidents, although scholars in a 2000 Wall Street Journal survey lifted him from the "Failure" category into the lower range of the "Below Average," enabling him to surpass Buchanan, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce. Black's generally pro-Nixon book isn't selling nearly as well as Dallek's generally critical one, and reviewers have been kinder to Dallek than to Black.

Outside the academy, however, Nixon's prospects are much better. In a key indicator of changing public opinion about the former president, over the years voters have gone from disapproving Ford's pardon of Nixon by two to one to approving it in the same proportion. College students, I find, accept what Ambrose has called the Nixon-inspired "impression that the only thing he and his administration had done wrong was Watergate." What's more, students tend to regard Watergate as politics as usual. That's no surprise: The news media's reflexive use of "gate" as the suffix attached to every small scandal has made the original seem small, too. And Nixon's ability to win campaigns never depended on carrying the faculty vote.

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