Richard Nixon served one full presidential term and less than half of another before he resigned in disgrace on August 8, 1974, a victim of his own paranoid obsession with his enemies. For many Americans, the word Watergate serves as convenient if insufficient shorthand for an administration tainted by scandal, haunted by war, and marked by creative initiatives in both foreign and domestic policy.
When Nixon took office in 1969, the America's involvement in the war in Vietnam had been going on for nearly five years. Over 30,000 Americas had died, and a vocal contingent of citizens at home had taken to the streets to demand peace. Nixon optimistically predicted that a satisfactory truce would come in time for the Congressional elections of 1970, but his policy of Vietnamization, or gradual withdrawal of American troops, foundered when South Vietnam failed to hold up its end of the fighting.
Nixon managed to end the war not in 1970, but in early 1973. By then, 25,000 more American soldiers had died, and Nixon's chance to earn the title of peacemaker had evaporated. Although Nixon withdrew American troops steadily from the time he took office, he had also extended the war into Cambodia and Laos. In the minds of many, Vietnam would always be Richard Nixon's war.
The Vietnam tragedy often overshadows Richard Nixon's greatest diplomatic achievement -- the opening of the People's Republic of China to the West. In the spring of 1972, Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit Communist China. Although Nixon and Chinese premier Chou-en-Lai signed no binding agreements, the summit marked the beginning of a new relationship between the United States and the People's Republic. Just months after the China summit, Nixon visited the Soviet Union, where he and premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the first ever agreements on nuclear weapons control.
Although he relished his role as an international diplomat, Nixon worked to create a more responsive, more efficient system of government at home. His calls for a "New Federalism," -- a movement of money and power away from the federal government and toward states and municipalities -- resulted in the creation of numerous local initiatives. Revenue sharing, one of the most popular New Federalist reforms, sent $83 billion in matching funds to states and municipalities from its passage in 1972 until it was killed by Ronald Reagan in 1986.
An advocate of "practical liberalism," Nixon believed in using government wisely for the benefit of all. As president, he brought affirmative action to the urban construction trades. He formed a task force on women's rights and brought sex discrimination suits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. He authored the Clean Air Act of 1970 and created the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency. To Nixon's dismay, however, he failed to achieve one of his most controversial domestic goals -- a reform of the welfare system which would have provided a guaranteed income for America's poor.
Sadly, Nixon's long-standing distrust of the media precipitated criminal behavior on his part which crippled, then destroyed his administration and his political career. In an effort to stop potentially damaging press leaks and help ensure his re-election, Nixon created a domestic espionage network. Members of this network, working for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, were caught in a burglary of Democratic National Committee Headquarters at Washington's Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972. Fearful that revelation of the scandal would damage his re-election bid, Nixon ordered a cover-up of CREEP's White House connections.
In one of the most dramatic media events of the 20th century, the Watergate conspiracy unfolded. Despite contrary public testimony by his closest aides, Nixon repeatedly denied any connection to Watergate -- in the end dramatic tape recordings the president had made himself provided irrefutable evidence of his role in the cover-up. Under threat of impeachment, Nixon became the first American president ever to resign.
By the time of his death in 1994, Richard Nixon's reputation had undergone minor rehabilitation, mostly due to his continued activity in the field of international diplomacy. Still, the pall of Watergate and the war remained, and many of his creative foreign and domestic enterprises would be all but forgotten. Nixon died not famous but infamous, an icon of American political tragedy.
Even after his death, Nixon continued to make headlines. In 1997, 201 hours of newly released tapes spawned countless articles on Nixon and his White House. Unfortunately, the tapes confirmed the worst suspicions many had about the Watergate break-in and cover-up.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?