While conducting a recent radio interview with Robert Nedelkoff, who since 1997 has worked on behalf of the Richard Nixon Foundation at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, a caller asked us if we were trying to “rehabilitate” the 37th President of the United States. We were discussing the new movie - Frost/Nixon – from the standpoint of historical accuracy.
My initial comment to the caller was that it would be rather difficult to rehabilitate anyone during a 12-minute radio segment, but of course, I understand what he was trying to say.
Richard Nixon remains a complex, fascinating, controversial, and formidable figure nearly 15 years after his death – and 35 years after the whole agonizing period of Watergate. To some he personifies absolute evil. They see him as a sinister caricature reminiscent of the work of political cartoonist Herblock.
To others – especially as the years go by and we learn a lot more about all the other presidents – he is remembered for the totality of his life and work. Watergate was an unforgettable episode – and certainly a sad chapter in his life and our history – but Mr. Nixon was far from the one-dimensional character defined by his past and present detractors.
There was a lot of talk while Mr. Nixon was president about an “enemies list.” But this does not discount the clear fact that Richard M. Nixon did, in fact, have many enemies - probably more per capita than any president before or since. A lot of people hated the guy’s guts for a generation and worked tirelessly for the day when they would see him leave the national political stage.
And – as he told David Frost in those now-famous interviews – he “gave them a sword” to use against him, one they gleefully used with “relish.”
Richard M. Nixon still has enemies. The names and faces have changed with the passing of many old foes – but there never seems to be a shortage of people who keep the anti-Nixon flame burning.
No, I am not trying to rehabilitate Mr. Nixon. Certain things can never be undone. But he did find a way to restore himself with a sense of personal persistence and resilience that is quite rare. History will continue to analyze, judge, and interpret who he was and what he meant to our national narrative. But there is no way to change the basic fact that the man was on five national tickets – a feat only equaled by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.