In 1962, after losing the governor’s race to Pat Brown, Richard M. Nixon pronounced: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Unfortunately, Nixon’s admonition was more like an exercise in reverse psychology: as president, former president, and even posthumously, Nixon has been kicked around…a lot. And as this week marks the 35th anniversary of Watergate, you would think that the blows would be coming fast and hard, but they’re not.
To say that people are now treating Nixon with kid gloves would be a gross exaggeration. However, the convergence of the Watergate anniversary, the batches of new Nixon biographies, and the Broadway sensation Frost/Nixon — all within the context of Bush’s presidency — has politicians, partisans and pundits looking at Nixon’s legacy in a new light.
A few weeks ago I did something I never expected to do in my life. I shed a tear for Richard Milhous Nixon. That’s in no small measure a tribute to Frank Langella, who should win a Tony Award for his star Broadway turn in Frost/Nixon….Frost/Nixon, a fictionalized treatment of the disgraced former president’s 1977 television interviews with David Frost, does not whitewash Nixon’s record. But Mr. Langella unearths humanity and pathos in the old scoundrel eking out his exile in San Clemente. For anyone who ever hated Nixon, this achievement is so shocking that it’s hard to resist a thought experiment the moment you’ve left the theater: will it someday be possible to feel a pang of sympathy for George W. Bush?
Perhaps not. It’s hard to pity someone who, to me anyway, is too slight to hate. Unlike Nixon, President Bush is less an overreaching Machiavelli than an epic blunderer surrounded by Machiavellis. He lacks the crucial element of acute self-awareness that gave Nixon his tragic depth….It would be a waste of Frank Langella’s talent to play George W. Bush (though not, necessarily, of Matthew McConaughey’s).
Frank Rich, Failed Presidents Ain’t What They Used to Be, The New York Times, June 3, 2007
The good old days
Do you agree with Frank Rich? How do you look at Nixon’s presidency as Watergate recedes further into history? Do you consider him a great statesman? Or has Nixon’s: “If the president does it, than it’s legal…” sentiment set a precedent for all presidents to abuse their power? What does Nixon’s “self-impeachment” say about today’s political climate? Does his legacy suggest that we are a nation that is incapable of learning a lesson? As the saying goes: Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Or has our current president better captured our zeitgeist with his masterful paraphrasing: Fool me once shame on you…fool me — and you get fooled?