Forty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon resigned from office. I was a very young child as I watched him announce his decision to resign on Aug. 8, 1974, but I remember seeing Nixon’s face fill the television screen, full of emotion. I could not have grasped that that brief speech was the culmination of a tragic series of events that had brought down his presidency, nor could I know that I would work for him years later.
In July 1990, I became former President Nixon’s foreign-policy assistant. I served in that capacity until his death on April 22, 1994. During those four years, I became a professional confidante of a man who had transformed American politics and changed global balances of power. Visible and controversial even in death, Nixon remains a source of endless fascination. “In politics,” he would say, “the only worse thing than being wrong is being dull.” He was sometimes wrong, but he was never dull.
The Nixon I came to know was far from the absurd, dark caricature painted by a hostile press. He was brilliant, kind, warm and witty, willing to share his wisdom and regrets openly and freely. He was a fascinating and generous mentor, and a very good man. Above all, he was a visionary. He was the rare American leader who could see what the world — and the country — were going to look like years into the future, and made American policy to anticipate that world.
During the years I spent working with him, we discussed every possible subject, including the Vietnam War, presidential candidates and politics, the performance of world leaders, global power dynamics, and his greatest joys and deepest sorrows. He was at ease talking about the prickliest of subjects. But there was one topic about which he could not speak without profound emotion and remorse.
The scandal changed the political dynamic for years to come, gave rise to a new brand of investigative journalism, and forced the first and only presidential resignation. For a natural and relentless fighter like Nixon, resigning before his time in office was up was, as he said during those final days in 1974, “abhorrent to every instinct in [his] body.” And yet, “as president, I must put the interests of America first.”
We didn’t speak about Watergate often, but when we did, the discussions tended to be full of Nixonian defiance, tempered with thoughtful reflection and regret.
We had our final discussion about the scandal on April 8, 1994, just nine days before he succumbed to a devastating stroke. “Watergate started out as a minor crime, which blew up into a major one when I got involved,” he said. “It’s hard to accept that you caused a great deal of damage to a career you have spent your whole life building and hurt the people around you. I finally faced up to the fact, though, that if I were going to survive this thing and make it up to my family and the country, then I was going to have to accept it for what it was: a major defeat in a lifetime of ups and downs, peaks and valleys . If I were going to recover at all, it was going to have to be that way.”
That was Richard Nixon. Realistic, resilient, forever fighting — for his reputation, for his legacy, for America. When asked how history would remember him, Nixon often quipped, “It depends on who writes the history.” Then he’d confide that since most historians were “on the left,” he didn’t expect to ever get a fair shake. A few days before he died, he came across a magazine article that referred to him as “sinister.” He said to me, “This is what we are up against, and it will never stop, regardless of how much good I do and how many times I apologize and how many dues I pay. This is it. This is the way it’s going to be.”
Perhaps, but it was also grossly unfair, given Nixon’s remarkable life and career: service in the Navy in World War II; election to Congress in 1946; exposure of top-ranking State Department official Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy; selection as Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952; the unbearably close loss to Kennedy in 1960; the loss in the California gubernatorial race in 1962; victory in 1968; the opening of American relations with China, detente with the Soviet Union; the end of the war in Vietnam; Watergate and the resignation; and the steady climb back to respectability.
At the center of American politics for almost 50 years, Nixon commanded a significance that went beyond political influence. Whether championing anti-communism or the need to help a post-Cold War Russia, civil rights or ending the draft, a “peace with honor” in Vietnam or a rapprochement with China, responsible arms control or educational opportunity, Nixon was there. In so many ways, he shaped the second half of the American century.
He was not a conservative by today’s standards. Many of his policies — starting the Environmental Protection Agency, wage-and-price controls, taking the United States off the gold standard, health care reform ideas that Hillary Clinton admitted served as a blueprint for her own — are spurned by modern conservatives. But Nixon led at a different time and in a different national context — and he later enthusiastically supported Ronald Reagan and the growing conservative movement.
Three days before he had the stroke that claimed his life, we talked about his upcoming book, “Beyond Peace,” and the message he wanted to convey. He said that he intended to talk about “the more profound stuff, like a country’s mission beyond peace and a person’s mission beyond just happiness . We can’t answer why we’re here, but we can tackle it and hope to get people thinking.” He pointed at me. “That’s what we’re going to do for our country over the next few weeks.”
He never got the chance. But he had spent decades doing for his country, leaving behind a monumental and complicated legacy that changed the country and the world. He was a patriot and a true American original, whose brilliance and vision we desperately miss on the scene today.
In the words of his 1972 campaign slogan: President Nixon. Now more than ever.