Dick Nixon, To Kick Around Evermore

By Emmett RensinMay 1, 2013

Dick Nixon, To Kick Around Evermore

Sometimes I have succeeded and sometimes I have failed, but always I have taken heart from what Theodore Roosevelt once said about the man in the arena, "whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is not effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievements and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

— Richard Nixon, August 8, 1974


ON APRIL 27, 1994, outside a small home in Yorba Linda, California, President William Jefferson Clinton delivered the final eulogy at the funeral of Richard Milhous Nixon. At first, the speech seemed to abide by the unspoken rules of decorum that had informed every eulogy before it: praise the former president in broad terms; highlight his triumphs in foreign policy. Pay homage to his enviable family life. Do not, under any circumstances, say “Watergate.” 

Do not talk politics. Do not talk resignation. China? Sure. Alger Hiss? Why not? A joke about Dick Nixon’s late-in-life affinity for rap music? That’d be okay. Any mention of the downfall that made the 37th president a synonym for corruption and a pariah even within his own party for the last 20 years of his life? Might dampen the mood — best to avoid it. 

For almost 10 minutes, Clinton did just that. He praised Nixon’s love for his wife Pat, for his valuable counsel to every subsequent administration  — including Clinton’s own — in matters of national security, for his many goodwill trips overseas. By all accounts, it looked like he was just trying to get through this thing with as little pain as possible and get back to DC. Then something happened: Clinton broke the rules. Halfway through a paragraph that began like yet another iteration of the deceased’s remarkable family life, the president paused. With a tilt in his voice that almost betrayed what he knew he was about to say, he continued:

“Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation,” Clinton intoned, “to remember Nixon’s life in totality. To them let us say: may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”

No, he didn’t use the word “Watergate.” But in a way that every member of the audience, both in Yorba Linda and on national television, understood, he said it. 


I knew Nixon the Idea long before I knew anything about Nixon the Man. As the child of baby boomers who had come of age cheering his downfall, some of my earliest lessons in American history had centered on Tricky Dick’s irredeemable fuckery. It wasn’t just me: by the time we millennials came to civic self-awareness, Richard Milhous Nixon had long been solidified as the archetypal villain of American political mythology, a consensus Bad Guy we inherited from our parents. 

Surveying my friends and peers confirmed it. Whether they had grown up in liberal or conservative families,  my fellow millenials' earliest memories of Nixon were largely the same — the guy was a criminal, a crook, a paranoid madman; hell, most of them reported knowing the epithet “Tricky Dick” before they were even aware that it referred to a former president of the United States. One friend, a native of deeply conservative Alabama, summed it up by recounting his parents watching Nixon’s funeral on television:

There was no, “now this guy was the President, but he made some mistakes,” or even that he’d been good in some ways but bad in many more. No. What I’d been told, as early as when I was a five-year-old, was that the guy they were burying on TV was a traitor to the office of the presidency, whose election was a national disgrace. And my parents are die-hard Republicans. I guess by the early 90s, Nixon-bashing was as important to child-rearing as weaning your kid off the bottle.

There were, of course, other figures we were taught to hate — Reagan if your parents were Democrats, Carter if they were Republicans — but Nixon was different, and not just because the loathing was universal. Carter and Reagan were meant to be tried in the court of one’s political persuasion and found guilty of embodying its opposite. But with Tricky Dick, the cart came before the horse: we knew he was bad before we knew politics at all; indeed, in the realm of public life, millennials grew up with Richard Nixon not as an example of badness, but as its definition. Nixon was bad the same way that God is good, or that Trix are for kids. Sure, your parents might teach you to despise Hillary Clinton or the dreaded Speaker Newt, but they were just examples of malice, and what’s that compared to being malice itself?

The archetype was useful. In my early life, the consensus around Richard Nixon frequently served as a much-needed salve when my peers and I began to develop our dueling political identities — no matter what, Nixon was still common ground. Take, for example, the Monica Lewinsky scandal. By the fall of 1998, the House had impeached Bill Clinton. He was facing trial in the Senate. The whole country was debating his worthiness to hold high office, from the talking heads on CNN down to me and the other students in my somewhat tony Los Angeles elementary school. It wasn’t exactly a fair fight. Out of 20-odd kids in our third-grade class, there was exactly one Republican: a prematurely grey-haired kid named Gavin who, by virtue of his minority politics, had faced more than his fair share of bullying and consequently knew his shit pretty well for an eight-year-old. He had been dispatching Clinton defenders left and right, and one day in the lunch line, he decided it was my turn. Standing behind me, he started in on the failings and corruption of President Clinton, telling me how in his (or at least his father’s) opinion, the president was a crook, a liar, and had done something bad with a lady who wasn’t his wife, even if he didn’t exactly know what that something was. Slick Willy, he said, should be thrown out of office, and we should all take this as a lesson in how untrustworthy the Democrats were in general. 

I still had some of my baby teeth; I wasn’t looking for a fight. Trying to find a way to diffuse the situation, I affected my best reasonable-grown-up voice (the one my parents used when they wanted to politely complain at a restaurant), and said, “Well, sure. But both sides have bad guys, don’t they? We’ve got Clinton, but what about you guys? The Republicans have Nixon.”

“Fair enough,” Gavin said, and that was that. We ate lunch in peace, neither of us really having the slightest clue why that argument made sense, neither of us  — I’m fairly certain  — knowing any more about Watergate than we did about whatever President Clinton had or hadn’t done with that woman. It didn’t matter: we knew Nixon was a bad guy, and in this case, it balanced the scales. 


Our parents saw Nixon fall in real time. They saw him go from another Republican politician to a new American pariah. They watched as he fulfilled every suspicion they had entertained since his sweat-stained five o’clock shadow sold Checkers like a used car. They wrote the history of his condemnation, and made it so universal that I have never met a boomer who doesn’t swear they voted for McGovern in ’72 — an impossibility when you consider that Tricky Dick took over half the 18–25 vote that year. For them, the decision to despise Nixon was conscious, a result of seeing the man through the lens of not just their politics, but also their sense of decency. We didn’t get to do any of that. We didn’t get to see history; we just received it in the same way we received George Washington’s honesty. Unlike boomers, millennials know Nixon’s evil not as a conclusion but as an axiom of our political calculus, as a fundamental tenet of our civil religion. Why would our parents bother with the details? As Hunter S. Thompson said, “This is not a generational thing. You don’t have to know who Richard Nixon was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit.” So it was simple: Nixon was a crook, despite his renowned protestation to the contrary. That was how it was. It was how we’d always known it to be. For the first half of my life, I never doubted the conclusion; doubt didn’t even occur to me as an option. Until it did. 


My teenage descent into Nixonalia started the same way my Boomer parents got into drugs: with the toke that didn’t kill. Back in the 1950s and 1960s — before the golden days of comprehensive education, before D.A.R.E., before even Nancy Reagan had the gall to suggest that the nation’s drug problem was a matter of pure personal perseverance, willed behind thee as easily as Satan — America’s drug education was the stuff of Reefer Madness. The children of the Eisenhower era were told that marijuana led, at best, to heroin addiction and madness; at worst, it meant instant death. In the short term, the strategy worked: a generation of schoolchildren was successfully scared shitless. In the long term, as we all remember, it all backfired.

When a young person finds out that taking a toke doesn’t unleash an unimaginable horror into their lives, it does violence to their faith in received wisdom. Boomers decided that everything they had been told about drugs was a lie. For me, it meant that, for about five years of my life, I absolutely loved Richard Nixon. It just took one toke. 

That toke was Nixonland. The second in a trilogy about contemporary movement conservatism by liberal Chicago historian Rick Perlstein, Nixonland presented itself not as a biography of the disgraced former President, but as the history of the American voting public between 1964 and 1972. As Perlstein puts it in his introduction: 

The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name — but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for President because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason. 

I was 18-years-old and a budding American history buff. Newly high on a misguided enthusiasm for Howard Zinn’s genius, Nixonland seemed right up my alley  —  the “invisible protagonist” of the American voter tickled my sense of populism, if nothing else. The time was ripe. I was taking AP US Government and, when I wasn’t taking non-lethal tokes, spent my free time reading my way through our nation’s history, maintaining and updating my personal “Top Five” lists (of presidents, battles, Supreme Court configurations, et al. I was like an overeducated, grossly uncool Rob Gordon). I’d just finished A Conspiracy So Immense on Joe McCarthy. The 1960s were next, and a people’s history of the Nixon years made perfect sense. Plus, I figured, I’d finally get the full story behind the man I’d hated all my life. It would be simple, it would be clear, and I’d finally have those long-absent facts on my side.

Then something strange happened. In an early chapter of the book, Perlstein takes us through the buildup and fallout of Nixon’s infamous 1952 Checkers speech. In retrospect, it hardly feels like fact at all: Perlstein’s account reads less like an actual history of an actual man named Nixon giving a speech, and more like a critical analysis of a George Saunders story about a fictional candidate giving a fictional speech who just happened to be named Richard Nixon. All the tropes are there: a down-on-his-luck, ambitious, morally flexible sad sack is facing a potentially humiliating crisis. It is an irrevocable moment of decision, born of his own flaws, although he insists — and, one gets the sense, is not entirely wrong in insisting — that this moment came from an unfair world that wants to kick the Loser while he’s down. He’s scheming, sure, but he’s also being sincere. He doesn’t understand, but he’s fighting for his integrity and his life. Like in a Saunders parable, you want to hate the antihero for his corruption, you want to cast him out for his weakness, and sigh a little bit for the failings of the American Dream. But you can’t. You can’t, because in a way you feel for the embattled Loser; you identify, just a little more than you’d like to, with the old sad sack. You feel ambivalent. As Perlstein points out, the story does not lend itself to easy conclusions, because “this wasn’t just an act. And it wasn’t just sincere. It was a hustle; and it was from the heart. It was all of those things, all at the same time.” 

So maybe Thompson was right to eulogize Tricky Dick as a man with “the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds,” who “would kill you as a lesson to the others” because “badgers don’t fight fair.” But who doesn’t root for the badger in a dogfight, even if he is a duplicitous bastard? 

Of course, none of this proved that Nixon was a good guy or a great president — all it did was show that Nixon was complex. For me, that was all it took. By feeling the slightest identification with a man for whom I’d been taught reflexive disgust my entire life, the world changed. There was nothing to fall back on, no way to drown this tiny stirring in a sea of contrary evidence, precisely because I’d never received contrary evidence: Nixon-hating was a given. Suddenly, deprived of certainty, I had nothing left. My faith was shattered. My teachers had lied to me.

From there, things went pretty quickly. With the reverse intensity of a convert, I began to see everything in Nixon’s favor. The press, the Democrats, the Ervin Committee, Woodward and Bernstein — they were all out to get my guy, my Nixon, the man who represented everyone who had ever been shit on by the establishment. He could do no wrong, and even when he did, it was fair play considering the treatment he was getting. My parents just didn’t get it. Nixon had become — for me — the misunderstood, tortured icon that every teenager must have been. Of course, in retrospect, I suppose I could have gone for Dylan, but it was 2008 and I wanted to be a rebel.

What worried me most was what this would mean for my politics. Was my sudden adoration for Nixon the inciting incident that would lead me over to the right side of politics? That’s when I discovered the second, and ultimately more substantial, truth about Tricky Dick.

As I kept reading, I rapidly concluded that the least interesting things about Richard Nixon are the very faults that inform his caricature. His anger, his resentment, his corruption and paranoia –– they were the stuff of freshman psych, easily diagnosed by anybody who could even spell “Freud.” In fact, we can clear the whole thing up right here: why was Richard Nixon so defensive, bitter, and paranoid? He grew up so poor that, despite receiving a full scholarship to Harvard, he was forced to attend Whittier College because his family couldn’t afford books or transportation. Two of his brothers died in childhood. His mother was an unironic user of the plain speech. His father beat him regularly, and on at least one occasion came very close to drowning a prepubescent Richard in a ditch.


Far more interesting was just how progressive Nixon seemed to be. No less a liberal luminary than Gore Vidal endorsed in Not The Best Man’s Best Man as:

The first President who acted on the not-exactly-arcane notion that the United States is just one country among many countries […] [Nixon] went to Peking and Moscow in order to demonstrate to all the world the absolute necessity of coexistence.

The foreign policy accomplishments are well documented and, however begrudgingly, praised in left-wing circles. It was these very accomplishments that were seen as safe subject matter for the funeral. They are remarkable not just for their success, but for the fundamentally progressive content of their character: disarmament in the form of the SALT treaties, restraint in support of Israel, choosing trade with China over the ideological rigidity of absolute good versus evil — these are the things that today’s Democrats can only dream of, lest they be accused of weakness, appeasement, and surrender. To an Angeleno teenager living in the latter days of George W. Bush, it looked like saintliness.

Moreover, Nixon’s unexpected leftism didn’t end at the water’s edge. On the domestic front, Nixon had instituted wage and price controls, founded the EPA, claimed that solar and wind power were the only option for the 21st century, rejected the extreme voices of his own party when they tried to give Spiro Agnew’s job to Ronald Reagan (who Nixon called a “know-nothing”) instead of the relatively moderate Gerald Ford. His record read like everything I wished my party could admit standing for and still get elected.

On the economy, Nixon declared himself — and all of us — to be Keynesians, saying flat out that the government does create jobs, siding with Paul Krugman, not Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand. On civil rights, he broke the 1959 Senate tie over strengthening the black vote in the former Confederacy; Senator John F. Kennedy sided with the South. As President he required affirmative action for federal contractors; Senator Sam Ervin, hero of the Watergate Committee, swore to fight integration to his last breath. On the environment — beyond the EPA and renewable energy — he halted dumping in the Great Lakes, passed the Clean Air Act, and formed a cabinet-level Council on Environmental Quality. He founded the Legal Services Corporation to assist the poor, opposed an amendment to protect school prayer, gave 18-year-olds the vote, ended the draft (finally), and was the first American president to propose the universal insurance mandate so hated by today’s Republicans. Ted Kennedy killed the legislation (it wasn’t liberal enough).

I began to play a game called “Guess Who Said It.” The idea was to put two quotations on a political issue next to each other — one from Richard Nixon, and the other from a well-known contemporary Democrat. Here’s one with John Kerry on the topic of gun control. Guess who said it:

Let me be clear. I support the Second Amendment. I am a gun owner. I am a hunter. 

I don’t know why an individual should have a right to a revolver in his house […] the kids usually kill themselves with it and so forth. Why can’t we go after handguns, period?

Richard Nixon — the Big Bad of American politics, the most universally condemned president of the last 100 years — was to the left of John Kerry on gun control. In 1992, near the end of his life, he went on record saying flat out that “[w]e need gun laws stricter than the Brady Bill.” 

Of course, on all of these counts, the Nixon legacy is more complicated than I gave it credit for all those years ago. But by the beginning of my freshman year at The University of Chicago, I was a clear-eyed apologist for Nixon the Complex; a foot soldier for Nixon the Surprisingly Liberal, acting out my revisionist crusade, full of zealotry. I volunteered for the Obama campaign while I filled my dorm room with 1968 campaign posters. I argued for socialism in my freshman sociology classes while debating (to my parents’ horror) any fellow liberal I could find on the 37th president. There didn’t seem to be a contradiction — my hero and my left wing values fell hand in hand.

In 15 short months, I had come from reflexively loathing to unconditionally loving The Great Boogeyman of American politics. From Nixonland to Nixonalia. From a toke to the needle. I was a Nixon junkie. 


I wasn’t alone, either. If one bothers to look, strange pockets of Nixon sympathy — Gore Vidal’s is one — can be found in diverse corners of our national dialogue. Arch-libertarian and master magician Penn Jillette is another (“Nixon […] was bugnutty, crazier than Charlie Manson’s shithouse rat but […] Nixon was still a strong, brave, smart human being, more fit to be president of the United States than I will ever be.”). A third is liberal millennial hero Stephen Colbert (on Nixon’s 1972 platform: “John Kerry couldn’t have run on this! What would I give for a Nixon?”)

As long ago as 1995, a serious effort to rehabilitate Nixon’s image for the left was undertaken by Joan Hoff in Nixon Reconsidered. With the 100th anniversary of his birth this year, publications from The National Review (“Nixon at 100: Was He ‘America’s Last Liberal?’” ) to The New York Times have taken stabs at a more nuanced Nixon (Nate Silver rates him a 22 for conservatism on a scale that gives Mitt Romney a 39 and Barry Goldwater a 67, for comparison). When I first discovered these fellow travelers, I was elated. Perhaps my instincts hadn’t been wrong after all; perhaps my teenage apostasy was just one of 1000 such conversions, signaling the first stirrings of a wave that would finally vindicate Dick Nixon. Perhaps my parents and my peers would see the light.

But it wasn’t so. All of these efforts to salvage Nixon were limited in two ways: first, most turned out not to be so much defenses as admissions of complexity, gesturing at the limitations of the Nixon caricature but ultimately embracing it. The possibility of redeeming Nixon feels, in many of these essays, more intellectual than probable, more flashy controversy than real conviction. The editorial voice remains consistently skeptical. Vidal, despite his praise, still resigns Nixon to the “parade of mediocrity” that followed FDR. Jillette concludes that Nixon was — despite some nuance — a “crook,” “not fit to be president,” and a “sack of shit” to boot. It’s hard to know when Colbert is kidding. The National Review answered its own question with a simple “No.”

Second, even the most valiant of these efforts had limited impact. Nixon Reconsidered did not, after all, result in much reconsideration of Nixon. Nothing has. The many essays published lately in his defense have not really breached the zeitgeist, and despite any inroads they may have made with the intelligentsia, most people — and especially most of my fellow millennials — still carry the simple view of Tricky Dick without a second thought. There hasn’t been a Nixonwave; there hasn’t hardly been a ripple, really. Despite all the attempts, I still find that defending President Watergate to your typical boomer is like telling them you don’t like the Beatles; praising him to a millennial is like saying Radiohead is overrated.

Mickle Maher — the Chicago-based boomer playwright and consummate anti-Nixon liberal — summed up the prevailing attitude nicely when I raised to him the mere possibility of Nixon’s vindication: “Why is this even a question,” he asked me, “Nixon’s degenerate, reactionary, corrupt, false choked, and shriveled soul? Geez-o-pete.” A leftist millennial friend who is — on other issues — no stranger to strong disagreement with the liberal consensus, is less poetic: “You’re just fucking wrong,” he’s told me more than once. Most millennials I talk to think I’m being ironic.


It isn’t irony, but there are levels. My admiration is no longer unconditional, and the case against President Nixon is not difficult to make — Watergate did happen, after all. He did try to firebomb the Brookings Institution. He had his cronies steal Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatric file, deliberately sabotage Ed Muskie’s 1972 campaign, and planted George McGovern literature in Arthur Bremer’s hotel room. He obstructed justice, and lied about it more than once to the people and the press. Despite what he said, he did have sex with those burglars. He was a self-serving politico who would stab you in the back as quick as he shook your hand and tell your mother about it in the same moment he pocketed her vote. Dick was a dick, sometimes.

His sins are legion. Beyond the more overt criminality, there’s also his well-known, albeit expediently private racism: believing blacks to be genetically inferior, the Irish mean drunks, the Italians not having “their heads screwed on tight,” Hispanics not real Americans, Jews “aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious” and unworthy of real trust.  Kissinger and Safire — that is, the only Jews he actually spent time with — were exceptions, of course. 

And his liberal stances? Perhaps nothing more than acts of opportunism, more convenient than principled. He was a man who would say or do anything to win, friends, family, and principle be damned. Even a cursory review of his public statements between 1960 and 1968 seems to confirm as much: on civil rights alone, Nixon held more positions than the rest of the country combined, aping everyone from Barry Goldwater to Stokely Carmichael. It’s the same with wage and price controls. Where he was consistent — on busing, on gay rights, and on abortion, for example — his stands were mainly conservative. The only consolation is that Nixon probably didn’t care about these issues any more than he did about the ones where we agree: by his own admission, domestic policy was a nuisance that distracted a President from his true role as an international statesman, so he was happy enough to get behind whichever way the wind blew. 

This, my teenage hero? It only gets worse. In recent months, the declassification of Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes has revealed perhaps the greatest of Richard Nixon’s sins: deliberately sabotaging Vietnam peace talks in 1968 in order to win the presidential election, purchased at the price of five more years worth of American blood. Even if his opportunism was understandable (what politician isn’t an opportunist?), even if his racism was somehow forgivable (he was born in 1913, after all), even if Watergate could be ignored (LBJ bugged Nixon’s campaign in 1968), this must be the thing beyond forgiveness, mustn’t it? As the BBC reported:

In late October 1968 there were major concessions from Hanoi which promised to allow meaningful talks to get underway in Paris — concessions that would justify Johnson calling for a complete bombing halt of North Vietnam. This was exactly what Nixon feared.

[Nixon adviser] Chennault was dispatched to the South Vietnamese embassy with a clear message: the South Vietnamese government should withdraw from the talks, refuse to deal with Johnson, and if Nixon was elected, they would get a much better deal.

So on the eve of his planned announcement of a halt to the bombing, Johnson learned the South Vietnamese were pulling out.

It seems nothing short of treason, committed by the very man who — say what you will about his sins at home — prided himself on being a peerless leader on the international stage.


This could be just the poetic third act my story needs, and a nice ending: my hero fallen, my five-year journey over, I come home, new evidence in hand, to the position my parents taught me. The prodigal son: wiser for the experience, now cleaving to the axiomatic truth that Richard Nixon was a fucker beyond redemption, his place as our national reference point for evil well deserved. My liberal credibility restored, my membership on the millennial left renewed in good faith …

But it just isn’t so. Despite the steady calming of my earlier enthusiasm, despite the encouragement of my entire generation, despite the old case against him and the new, despite everything, I still find myself at bat for Richard Nixon if only because I am drawn, indeed, drawn more confidently than ever, to Nixon the Complex. Despite finding the waters especially muddy, I still discover the scales tipped for Tricky Dick. I still see him as an unacknowledged hero of the American Left. 

I’ve been thinking about why. 

My Nixonalia was born during the dying light of the Bush administration — a consensus villain in his own right, who made Ronald Reagan look like a moderate in the school of Nelson Rockefeller. The height of my devotion coincided with the rise of the Tea Party, who make Bush Jr. look like a liberal in the school of George McGovern. It's possible that in the face of a national discourse increasingly driven on the right shoulder, Nixon, despite it all, does appear reasonable. I don’t think that’s the reason, though.

It could be that I simply refuse to have my assessment of the man burned down a second time — but I don’t believe that, either. 

In reading Nixon’s writing, in examining his positions, and in watching him speak, one more important truth consistently emerges. Whether you agree or disagree with any of his given positions, whether you find fault or favor with his actions, in every case you can’t help but see an engaged mind at work. Nixon was brilliant, and even in his most catastrophic choices his thinking never lacked deliberate complexity — in fact, an almost obsessive desire for nuance. Our worst presidents — from Jackson and Polk to Reagan and Bush Jr. — have suffered, at their core, from a rigidity of vision, from a preference for simple thinking and the comfort of unwavering ideology (Reagan’s aides famously noted how the man who entered the Oval Office with the most persuasive simple metaphor always won the aging actor’s ear). While this preference at times informed their greatest moments, it also crippled them — preventing reversals when the times demanded them. For me, at least, confidence in a president’s intellectual curiosity serves as a buffer against condemnation. It is what allows me to proceed with cautious optimism when President Obama makes decisions I don’t initially support; I may disagree, but, unlike with Bush Jr., I am at least convinced he thought about it, that he sought the best intelligence on the matter first. Nixon was, first and foremost, a thinker. Reagan couldn’t remember his own legislative agenda, and that was long before the Alzheimer’s set in; Nixon would’ve hated Sarah Palin (despite some pundits’ bottomless desire to compare the two), and not because of her positions, or even her loose relationship with the facts. He would’ve hated her for not even bothering to learn the facts before she lied about them.

When I read the accounts of those who knew Nixon personally, it is this quality of intellect they always come back to: his knowledge, his devotion to detail, his unexaggerated genius. Jillette quotes Frank Gannon, a former Nixon aide, arguing that Richard Nixon was the smartest president we ever had. In Nixonland, Perlstein gives us this account from a young YAF staffer, recalling a meeting between Richard Nixon and his organization in 1966:

No notes … He goes around the world. Rattling off names, connections, ‘this is what we have to look for here … Russia and China … the Sino-Soviet split,’ and he starts mentioning names and names below names, and names below names below names, and ‘here is what France is saying,’ and de Gaulle is saying this, and whoever was the British prime minister, and the prime minister of Japan … I mean, he was rattling off all these names.

Nixon speechwriter Bruce Herschenson: 

He looked at [the world] as a world with 200 countries and 200 leaders, and he studied every one of those leaders, and he knew most of them … It’s a talent I have never seen equaled.

Another well-known anecdote, appearing throughout the annals of Nixon accounts, claims that if you drew an arbitrary line through a map of the United States, Tricky Dick could tell you the political lay of the land in every Congressional district it passed through.

Richard Nixon was, beneath all else, a mind at work. To be sure, it worked for evil as often as it did for good, and –– no matter the moral equation –– worked always for itself. But all other things being equal, it is this superlative mental quality that keeps me from totally abandoning Dick Nixon. The complexity of his own mind, mirroring the complexity of a legacy that cannot be done justice by any simple judgment — that cannot be assessed by looking at any single act. He’s complicated. At least I think so — it’s hard to know with Tricky Dick. That’s what keeps him interesting.


In his 1978 memoirs, and for the rest of his life, President Nixon insisted that he would one day be vindicated by history. He believed, as I once did, that the balance of his triumphs would outweigh the memory of his downfall. But now? I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. I don’t know if it should. I know that a full and fair debate of Richard Nixon may never make him a hero, but I also know that a full and fair debate can never happen in my generation.

The boomers’ disdain for Richard Nixon was reflexive, and by it they indoctrinated millennials with an a priori hatred. And this has deprived us — every politically-minded millennial, including me — of the opportunity to have a reasonable debate about the 37th president’s legacy, and thus about our own political history.


LARB Contributor

Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Iowa City.


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