The Beginning of Nixon’s End
At first, it seemed like an Inaugural Address for the ages.
“The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker,” President Richard Nixon, said upon taking the Presidential oath of office 50 years ago today.
“This honor now beckons America; the chance to help lead the world at last out of the valley of turmoil and onto that high ground of peace that man has dreamed of since the dawn of civilization.”
These were the words of a statesman who knew how to govern, a man well aware of the wider world and the crucial leadership role America played.
It had been a long and painful political journey that had brought Nixon to the Capitol. By January 20, 1969, he had spent eight years in the limbo that was the Vice Presidency under Dwight Eisenhower.
Nixon famously lost to Kennedy in 1960 after coming so close.
He then lost again, this time to Democrat Pat Brown, when he made an ill-advised attempt to win the California governorship.
Yet, despite these defeats, Nixon was still in the arena. He was now master of it all. The majesty and mystery of the Presidency was his to wield and shape for four years, possibly eight.
Seen today from a political era dominated by the angry partisanship and divisiveness of Donald Trump, Nixon’s January 1969 address seems refreshingly hopeful, positive and measured:
“To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. When we listen to ‘the better angels of our nature,’ we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things, such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.”
“Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us and cement what unites us. To lower our voices would be a simple thing.”
Sounding confident and strong, yet still humble all the same, Nixon’s speech is replete with concepts seemingly foreign to the Trump White House five decades later:
“In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver,” he said, “[and] from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another; until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices…Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in.”
While lacking the poetic call of President Kennedy’s asking Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Nixon’s speech still presented his citizens with the same positive challenge.
“Until he has been part of a cause larger than himself, no man is truly whole,” he said on that cold January day in 1969.
Only five years later – this time in the heat of summer – Nixon and his vision lay in ruins. His inner demons, manifested in a scandal called Watergate, revealed for all on audio tapes. His was and remains the only Presidential resignation.
In so many ways, Watergate would be Nixon’s epitaph; his first Inaugural Address is rarely quoted in the fifty years that have followed.
Shortly after Nixon departed the South Lawn as President one final time, a new chief executive – a man of whom not much was ever expected – used his own Inaugural Address to begin healing the nation.
Gerald Ford said:
“As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.”
“In the beginning, I asked you to pray for me. Before closing, I ask again your prayers, for Richard Nixon and for his family. May our former President, who brought peace to millions, find it for himself.”
In many ways, Nixon had in fact shown true greatness. He opened the door to China and successfully concluded a nuclear arms deal, SALT I, with the Soviet Union.
He also ended the Vietnam War and brought the POWs home.
Domestically, he advocated for a guaranteed annual income to lift up the nation’s poor. He sought to use the powerful levers of the federal government to combat cancer and helped place the environment on the 20th century’s national agenda.
In 1972, he was returned to the Presidency by the largest popular vote margin in American history.
This record still stands today.
But despite these victories and accomplishments, 37 could not save himself from himself. The early promise he spoke of 50 years ago today now only a distant memory.
Rather than his First Inaugural Address, most instead recall that East Room farewell. As many of his supporters unsuccessfully held back tears, Richard Nixon at long last revealed his true self.
“Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
A public and private man shattered while the entire world watched.
The faith of Americans in the Presidency shaken to the core.
A country and people in political crisis.
A great Inaugural Address and opportunity tarnished forever.
The beginning of the end of Richard Nixon.