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No doubt one way or another, you've been caught up in the drama of the election that ultimately culminates today, when people will cast their ballots. Today, it seems like every candidate is out to get you, one way or another, and there's no good choice to be made. In the 2016 election, people were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in a highly polarized election: the only question, who was the lesser of the two evils? (Answer: Neither, vote for a third-party candidate.) Wouldn't it be nice if we could return to a bipartisan era when people could feel good about going to the polls?
Today, we'd like to take a closer look at one of the most infamous presidents in history: Richard Nixon. Undoubtedly, you've heard of him — he was the only president ever to resign (and he did so, before he could be impeached). He occupied the Oval Office from January 1969 until his abrupt resignation on August 9th, 1974. To many Americans, that day is of utmost importance to many Americans — it represents the culmination of many years of machinations and embodied the distrust of federal government that has persisted since then. And of course, everyone remembers the cause: the infamous Watergate Scandal that has since lent the use of the —gate suffix to any political debacle. But even considering all that, was Richard Nixon really a terrible president?
To answer that, we can turn to a number of surveys that have been conducted asking historians to rate presidents in comparison to each other. The surveys are divided on the precise rankings, but a trend emerges across all of them. In the surveys we looked at, the best rank Richard Nixon received was 23 out of 24 (remember, Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms) and the worst rank he received was a 36 out of 44, putting him solidly either smack in the middle or in the lower range of the middle. Conservatives don't rank him much higher than liberals do: liberals rate him on average a 35 while conservatives ranked him a meager four points higher, 31 out of 44. Why is that?
Contrary to what some people who don't know history may believe, Richard Nixon was an incredibly moderate, centrist president. On the Republican ballot in 1968, he was running for office at a time when the two major national political parties were in turmoil, deeply divided. The incident at the DNC in August of 1968 signified just how divided the Democratic Party had become over issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War. The Republican Party began catering more toward social conservatives around this time — while Barry Goldwater was a prime example of this in 1964, it was Richard Nixon who also succeeded in getting elected.
Although he promised to bring "law and order" to the majority and speak for the "silent majority", clearly catering toward the right side of the aisle, he ended up doing much to please the other side as well during his time in office. Certainly, by modern standards, Nixon was very much an "accidental liberal", and he worked closely with Democrats on many important issues. Nixon was a Republican, but let us not forget that it was he who signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and it was he who created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. It was he who endorsed a new Clean Air Act in 1970 and it was he who signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973. Nixon cared about people, too, not just the environment. It was he who signed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration into existence in 1970 and it was he who endorsed the creation of the Consumer Products Safety Commission.
Oh, and Nixon was an advocate for women's rights as well. In 1972, he signed Title IX into law, which forbade sex discrimination in higher education.
Nixon's success abroad was not as clearcut. In 1970, Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, which seemed counter to his proposal of Vietnamization. However, in comparison to the tactics of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon must be given far more credit, for it was he who ultimately ended the draft in 1973, transitioned the military to an all-volunteer force, and paved the way for negotiations to finally end the Vietnam War after nearly two decades of bitter fighting in Southeast Asia. And when we look outside of Vietnam, his success is even more apparent. Despite being a staunch anticommunist, Nixon visited China in 1972 and opened the door to diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations with the country. He also visited the Soviet Union the same year. Among his many accomplishments there, he was able to secure a sale of nearly $1 billion in food to the Soviets, negotiated the first Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and laid the groundwork for the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks. Referred to as détente by many historians, Nixon significantly improved relations with both China and the Soviet Union.
Is it any wonder Nixon was so popular with people at the time? In addition to winning over 60% of the popular vote in 1972, he secured 520 out of the 538 total electoral votes!
A critical look at Richard Nixon is incomplete without any mention of Watergate, so let us turn to that now. You are familiar with the event and its aftermath, I will assume. It was, after all, the biggest political scandal in history. But, it wasn't the only one. In the year since, there have been equally embarrassing political situations — Ronald Reagan had to contend with the Iran-Contra scandal and Bill Clinton had to contend with the the Lewinsky scandal. For whatever reason, people always seem to gloss over those. In terms of what actually happened, the Iran-Contra affair was certainly a more involved one than Watergate. The Watergate scandal involved a few men breaking into the Watergate complex to inspect a malfunctioning bug on a telephone set. Wiretapping, is, of course, illegal, but it certainly pales in comparison to secretly facilitating the sale of arms to Iran!
What is more, Nixon himself was not directly aware of the activities going on under his nose and only, after learning about them, did he proceed to help cover them up in efforts to, perhaps, protect the American people from the situation. Reagan, on the other hand, was most definitely aware of the situation going on under his nose and did nothing to stop it! And yet, he is revered by conservatives as a heroic president! Why is that? Richard Nixon was a very involved, hands-on president. Reagan was quite the opposite — he was a very passive, hands-off president. In short, people like Reagan because he did squat in office. Perhaps you'll disagree, but I prefer presidents who at least try to accomplish something and maybe slip up here and there. In terms of accomplishments, Nixon has far more to boast of than does Reagan. So why is Reagan so much revered? Truth be told, he must be given credit for ultimately de-escalating the Cold War. Apart from that, it very clearly boils down to personality. Reagan was an incredibly charismatic president, no doubt about that. Nixon, not so much. Once nicknamed "Tricky Dick" by his critics, Nixon was an engaged president who was incredibly involved, but he didn't always come across right to the American public, and no doubt his demeanor has something to do with how is commonly remembered today.
All this is not to say that Nixon was the best president in the history of the United States. He wasn't. But he certainly doesn't deserve the bad rap commonly accorded to him. Nixon did an immense number of things for our country and to ignore all that solely for Watergate is to do injustice to history. The fact is that Watergate itself escalated out of control when it needn't have and Nixon was a president of many accomplishments of which few others can boast. What is more, what he lacked in charisma he made up in his willingness to cooperate, and Nixon is one of the best examples of moderate, centrist, bipartisan presidents, something we could use more of in this day and age. Perhaps he might be remembered in slightly better light if he were a more passive behind-the-scenes president who increased prosperity, like Coolidge, or an accomplished president who was charming and unblemished, like Eisenhower (think about it: in his eight years of office, what ever tarnished Eisenhower's name? Exactly!). Whatever the case may be, it is an insult to history to ignore Nixon's many accomplishments, and credit must certainly be given where credit is due. Hopefully, one day, Nixon will be remembered for his accomplishments, rather than the mistakes of his subordinates.