Victory In Defeat
Richard Nixon failed more spectacularly than any other U.S. President, yet by sheer endurance he rebuilt his standing as the most important figure of the postwar era
BY John F. Stacks/TIME
The significance of any person in history, no matter how complex, can be captured in one sentence, Clare Booth Luce once told Richard Nixon. "You will be summed up: He went to China," she declared.
Her estimation came before Watergate. "Now," Nixon said a few years ago, "historians are more likely to lead with "He resigned from office.' The jury has already come in, and there's nothing that's going to change it. There's no appeal. Historians will judge it harshly."
He was right of course, as hard-eyed and tough about himself as he had been about other people all his life. It was the same sort of ruthless judgment he had applied to opponents as well as friends, to opportunities and risks, to domestic politics and international diplomacy.
But as he lay dying three years ago, the verdict on his life and career was becoming, if not softer, at least more complicated. Messages from around the world poured into the hospital in New York City from the statesmen who admired his reach and strength, from the politicians he had dominated and from the citizens who loved him despite his gaping flaws. By the time he died, something close to affection, born of such long familiarity, could be discerned, even from his enemies.
Other politicians came and went, but Nixon was always coming back. By sheer endurance, he was the most important figure of the postwar era. Nixon put the country through some of its worst times, leading the red-scare politics of the 1950s, escalating the war in Vietnam in order to end it, trying with all his enormous energy and guile to defeat the legal processes that closed in on him during the Watergate scandal. Yet an outsize energy and determination drove him on to recover and rebuild after every self-created disaster that he faced.
To reclaim a respected place in American public life after his resignation, he kept traveling and thinking and talking to the world's leaders. After leaving the White House nearly 20 years ago, he produced nine books. Just a month before his death, he was in Russia trying to get a current sense of the bizarre politics of the nation he fought against for so long. On his return from that trip, he stopped in Washington, where he lectured a room packed with members of America's foreign policy establishment. He spoke for 90 minutes without notes and drew a standing ovation for his lucid presentation. On the day that an embolism struck him mute, page proofs for his last book arrived at his office.
That book, titled Beyond Peace, is a kind of last testament from Richard Nixon. It is a tartly apt critique of American foreign policy. His timing was uncanny. The book arrives just as a welter of post-cold-war crises, from Bosnia to Korea, have thrown American policies into deepening disarray. And, as always, his focus on foreign affairs was designed to draw attention to the area of his presidency in which his accomplishments outweighed his failures.
Still, Watergate was the dark monument Richard Milhous Nixon built for himself. No other President in American history had been forced to resign the office. No other President in American history had been revealed to be so cynically, so selfishly breaking the law to preserve his own power. Other Presidents may have acted as ignobly, but none was caught so nakedly. More than 30 of the men who were closest to him went to jail for their roles in Watergate. Nixon himself was pardoned by his successor. But John J. Sirica, the judge who presided over much of the Watergate case, concluded later that Nixon too should have gone to jail.
It was always easy to be angry with Richard Nixon. He had an unerring instinct for the divisive thrust in politics. He succeeded over and over again by making personal attacks on those who opposed him. His own childhood sufferings were transposed into a powerful need to win at all costs. It began with his first campaigns in California and ended with his famous enemies list when he was President.
The anger that trailed after him, which always intensified after his victories because he was rarely a gracious winner, obscured his accomplishments. He was perhaps the most practiced American statesman to occupy the White House in this century. He understood the world in a deep and subtle way. He also had a fine sense of his own country, exploiting the disgust of the "silent majority" as the social and intellectual elites turned first against the war in Vietnam and then against anything vaguely bourgeois.
For a man who used ideology early and often in his political career, he was an astonishingly pragmatic domestic leader. He loathed the Eastern monied establishment that ran the Republican Party as he was rising in it, but his presidential agenda was quite moderate by contemporary G.O.P. standards. He realized that the Great Society programs of the Lyndon Johnson era had failed, but he believed that they were aimed at real problems and that the government should try to solve them.
When he left Washington in disgrace, Nixon retreated to his home in California. It is almost impossible to imagine the pain of his fall, and equally impossible to imagine the strength that kept him going. He nearly died after an attack of phlebitis and thought of taking his own life. Instead, he began a patient and calculated climb back to respectability. When he was still too much the pariah to be seen with sitting Presidents, he consulted quietly with their aides. And by the time Bill Clinton came to the White House, Nixon had virtually cemented his role as an elder statesman. Clinton, whose wife served on the staff of the committee that voted to impeach Nixon, met openly with him and regularly sought his advice. After his death, Clinton agreed to speak at the 37th President's funeral in California. It was a generous act. Nixon had been pardoned again.
To the end, it pained Richard Nixon that his ideas and advice were always diluted by the shame of his fall. "Oh, they say, this is the Watergate man and we're not going to pay any attention to him," Nixon lamented. But America had always paid attention to Nixon. For good and ill, he defined American politics and policy for a half-century, defined it by his successes and by his failures.
In the author's note to Beyond Peace, Nixon recalls that he told former Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi that politics, like war, could be hell. When Rutskoi was released from prison in February, where he had been held following his failed putsch against Boris Yeltsin, Nixon thought perhaps Rutskoi had learned "that, for some, there can be life after hell."
History will judge Richard Nixon as much more than the Watergate man. And he leaves another, brighter monument: his own superhuman determination and stamina. It seems almost impossible that he has finally been defeated.
This article adapted from the May 2, 1994 issue of TIME.