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Richard M. Nixon, A Man of Our Times

Column by Matthew H. Hersch
Contributing Editor

I've never written a memorial piece before, not even for H. R. Haldeman, whom I regard as a personal hero. It's only fitting though, that I should take pen to paper for his former employer, ex-ex-president Richard Milhous Nixon.

Let me get this straight right off the bat. Nixon was one of the finest presidents this nation has ever had. Sure, he was something of a paranoid schizophrenic, but this is actually a requirement for anyone seeking elected office, as any Undergraduate Association hack can tell you.

We Americans have a lot to thank Nixon for, even indirectly. Think how much richer our political lexicon is, for example, with the addition of words and phrases like"firestorm," "honcho," "the madman theory of diplomacy," "Saturday Night Massacre," "William Safire," "you won't have Nixon to kick around," and my favorite: "follow the money."

But seriously, folks, as a foreign relations meister Richard Nixon was first-rate, and probably one of the few American presidents who has been able to manage foreign affairs effectively and achieve even an iota of what he set out to do. As a war-stopper, Nixon's record is unmatched, and while his domestic world was marred by questionable ethics, his international efforts were as a peacemaker, a peacekeeper, and a champion of the underdog.

Presiding over the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, he accomplished (although painfully) something that scores of other politicians were deathly afraid to. By engaging in detente with China and the USSR simultaneously, he prevented at least three wars, and possibly a nuclear exchange between Moscow and Beijing. And by coming to the support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, he not only helped preserve that country, but kept Soviet troops out of the Middle East for 20 years. Compared to these wins, Nixon's few blunders (like bombing Cambodia and actually trying to convince the North Vietnamese that he was a paranoid schizophrenic in order to extract a peace settlement) seem only to be cute ideas that almost nearly worked.

Nixon was a president with a true grasp of the potential posed by his office, but he also proved, to an American people that probably needed the lesson, how inherently corrupting all power is. Nixon was a man of odd notions and screwy conspiracies who surrounded himself with people who encouraged him instead of setting limits, and he eventually paid the price.

And so, I suppose, everything comes back to Watergate. Don't get me wrong -- everything about that little affair is important. Nixon is probably guilty of everything of which he was charged, and even the most mild of his transgressions represent something of a perversion of the American political system. But the record of Nixon's life should not end there, for Nixon's political career did not. Until his death, he was still one of America's foremost senior statesmen.

That Nixon could accomplish the successes that he did is a tribute to this nation; that he got nailed after going too far is something of a tribute, too. Nixon was Nixon, and this country is better off for having known him.