How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Richard Nixon?

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Mr. Small is a professor of history at Wayne State University and is the author of The Presidency of Richard Nixon (University Press of Kansas American Presidency Series, 1999).

In 1978, as he was beginning his relentless and ultimately successful run for the ex- presidency, Richard Nixon told an audience at Oxford University,"Some people say I didn't handle [Watergate] properly and they're right. I screwed it up. And I paid the price. Mea Culpa. But let's get on to my achievements. You'll be here in the year 2000 and we'll see how I am regarded then." He was betting that as Watergate faded from memory, the many significant self-perceived achievements of his presidency, particularly in foreign policy, would elevate him to the ranks of if not a great president, certainly a mostly successful one.

Yet in 1996, a distinguished bipartisan panel of scholars and journalists ranked him dead last in their presidential rankings, behind such abject failures as U.S. Grant and Warren G. Harding. Is this because, as Nixon once lamented,"History will treat me fairly. Historians probably won't because most historians are on the left."

He may have had a point. Suppose in late 1944, Republicans had discovered how Franklin D. Roosevelt had illegally used the FBI in the years before American entry into the war to monitor his congressional critics. And suppose they had coupled that serious charge with charges about his covering up illicit affairs with several women. One could imagine impeachment proceedings beginning that would have forever tarnished his presidency. But would that mean that he would have been relegated to the tier of failed presidents?

The problem with evaluating Richard Nixon's claim to greatness revolves around the weight one attaches to what his Attorney General labeled the"White House horrors." And these went well beyond the break-in at the Watergate complex and the subsequent coverup. Moreover, it is difficult for most observers to attribute greatness to a man whose dark and often bigoted view of humanity has been made plain for all to hear on those infamous tapes.


Nixon, a rather cerebral fellow, at least compared to most modern presidents, had studied the presidency, not just close up from 1947 on, but from the history books. On several occasions, he told his aides, most of whom did not have a clue, that if they examined the record, they would have been surprised to discover that William Howard Taft was a far more successful president in terms of his legislative record than Theodore Roosevelt. But it was Teddy whom most historians ranked among the near greats. The reason was public relations.

Few presidents have ever devoted so much time to public relations and to personally trying to fashion his image. His papers are full of lengthy memos instructing his aides how to enhance that image. For example, after five days in office, he instructed John Ehrlichman to get out the word that"RN has wit, is kind to his staff, that people in the Cabinet and Security Council and all who come to see him are immensely impressed by his ability to preside over a meeting, to grasp a subject, that he reads an immense amount of material."

Nixon was inordinately proud of trumpeting his firsts from presidential visits to Romania, Poland, and China, to vetoing a bill on prime-time television, to starting the first war on cancer, to talking to men on the moon. In fact, even his good friend Billy Graham mildly dressed him down for greeting the astronauts, after their splashdown, with the proclamation,"This is the greatest week in the history of the world since creation."


According to David Gergen,"We had a rule in the Nixon Administration that before any public event was put on his schedule, you had to know what the headline out of that event was going to be." What other president was so concerned about his image as to time a trip through Rome's streets during rush hour so that it would appear to television viewers that hundreds of thousands of Italians had turned out to view his motorcade?

To be fair, he felt it was necessary to stage manage his claims to greatness because he was convinced that he would never receive objective treatment from journalists, particularly the alleged liberal tastemakers in the East who worked for the three television networks, the two major newsweeklies, and the New York Times and the Washington Post. Yet by 1972, even reporters and columnists who worked for those media had come to evaluate Nixon's presidency somewhat favorably. After all, one cannot attribute his landslide victory in the 1972 election entirely to dirty tricks, smoke and mirrors, and George McGovern's inept campaign. Most Americans approved of his foreign policies including what then appeared to be a daring opening to China, the normalization of relations with the Soviet Union, and bringing most of their boys home from Vietnam with"peace at hand."

At home, he had signed into law more important environmental legislation than any president since TR, had introduced the first welfare-reform program, had done away with the draft, approved legislation to give eighteen-year olds the vote, established AMTRAK, OSHA, and an independent Postal Service, oversaw the final desegregation of most southern public schools (while still pursuing his Southern Strategy), and through wage-and price-controls temporarily righted the economy just in time for the 1972 election cycle.

To be sure, much of this happened with Nixon holding his nose, signing into law bills that had originated in a activist Democratic Congress. Yet beginning from the premise that the buck stops on the president's desk and that he or she is responsible for whatever legislation leaves the Oval Office, then Nixon's record over his first four years appears impressive.


Does he then have some claim to presidential greatness? If one relegates Watergate to the second term, thus ignoring the fact that some of the most damning particulars in his bill of impeachment began as early as 1969 and if one also ignores the unpleasant human being revealed on the tapes, then one would have to take seriously his 1978 prediction that some day Americans would appreciate the contributions of his presidency. Needless to say, those are two rather big Ifs. Courtesey of TomPaine.com

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More Comments:

Craig - 12/15/2003

While I can't help but agree with Mr. Offner, I think Mr. Small's point, and more largely, Nixon's own point, was that we too often judge our presidents by too narrow a margin. We allow only single or a few events from their administrations to define their lives. Nixon is remembered poorly because of Watergate. Regardless of anything else he may have done, the names Nixon and Watergate are inexorably linked in time. President Reagan was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, and also funded anti-Soviet terrorists in Afghanistan. But he is more likely to be remembered for helping to end the Cold War. President Clinton's presidency will most likely be remembered as one big sex-joke instead of being judged on the merits of his foriegn and domestic policies. Regardless of whether we view a president as either "good" or "bad", we should take the time to examine the whole president and weigh his positives against his negatives.

Arnold Offner - 12/26/2001

For Mel Small....my dear friend and tenis master, whose writing are usually so on the mark:

Dear Mel,

The issue of whether NIxon was a great president does not rely at all on clarifying the Watergate issue...for that is not the only, or perhaps even major, reason he failed as President.

How can one forgive the XMas bombing of Hanoi in 1972? To what end, to what purpose???? He and Kissinger are closer to being war criminals than they are to "great" men...Wht did it take four years plus, and tens of thousands of deaths/casualties to get us out of Vietnam.

And what of the overthrow of Salvador Allende's democratically elected government in Chile in 1973, and responsibility for all the deaths, including Allende's that followed? Again, Nixon-Kissinger are closer to war criminals than great men.

I could go on, but I I think this suffices....Nixon was a disaster in every way...and his signing some environmental legislation does little to exonerate him for all he did to foul America's politcal environment.

Your still admiring and respectful friend,

Arnie Offner