Why do I still find Richard Nixon so fascinating? After all, my political views on many matters are arguably more conservative than his were and would likely be if he were alive and politically engaged today. I think my interest has always flowed from what I admired about the man himself. A giant American historical figure, Mr. Nixon was on five national electoral tickets—a feat matched only by Franklin Roosevelt.
This weekend, the Richard Nixon Centennial Special Exhibit opens at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. It was my privilege to provide the narration for the exhibit’s video: Patriot. President. Peacemaker.
I grew up as a history geek and remember running home at the age of 12, after an early school dismissal on January 20, 1969, to watch Nixon’s inauguration as 37th President of the United States.
More than a year earlier, as Christmas approached in 1967, Richard M. Nixon, private – though prominent – American citizen, went through a period of soul searching. The sweep of national and international events, as well as extraordinary personal experiences, weighed on his pensive mind. He was emerging from a wilderness period, the kind he would later quote historian Arnold Toynbee describing as the, “temporary withdrawal of the creative personality from his social milieu transfigured in a newer capacity with new powers.”
To some, the term Nixonian refers to charting a more moderate (or as Mr. Nixon would likely have described: “centrist”) path. This is certainly an accurate definition as far as it goes. But to me, Nixonian is more than a mere political nomenclature indicative of a body of tactics and strategy.
To me, Nixonian is a metaphor for persistence.
Richard Nixon was the embodiment of rugged determination. He personified what nineteenth-century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle once wrote: “Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragement, and impossibilities. It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak."
And in those waning days of 1967, Mr. Nixon was poised to mount another campaign for our nation’s highest office, though he had not actually won an election in more than a decade. He had lost a breathtakingly close race for the presidency in 1960. Then, in an awkward comeback attempt, was rejected in 1962 by California voters in a race he was encouraged to run by a former President. Immediately thereafter, the prevalent wisdom was that Nixon was a loser, and that his political obituary had already been written.
But the so-called experts were all wrong. Nixon was down, but certainly not out. In so many ways, as was the case with Winston Churchill, the days described by most biographers as his wilderness period, were among his best. Persistence, determination, patience, reflection – these were the future president’s watchwords as the nation was torn by crisis, a horrific presidential assassination, an expanding and confusing war in Southeast Asia, and national leadership marked by the hubris of some who apparently actually thought they were “the best and brightest.”
On the eve of 1968, a year that would be marked by tumult and division, many were beginning to take another good long look at Richard Nixon. At the time, Lyndon Johnson’s hold on the office was tenuous. LBJ would bow out for good by the end of March. It was shaping up to be a very interesting political season.
What was happening was akin to a political story in Great Britain a generation earlier, when a man thought to be a has-been rose again to lead at a perilous moment. Signs began to pop up all over London in 1939 bearing the words, “What Price Churchill?” Winston Churchill would so often say, “KBO,” which meant: “Keep Buggering On.” I am not sure if Richard Nixon ever said it exactly that way – but he clearly understood the meaning.
Citizen Nixon had a long talk with his family on Christmas Day in 1967 about whether or not he should run again for the White House. It was a subdued moment for all of them – but especially Nixon, himself. His mother, Hannah – beloved by her son, and a source of strength and encouragement through the years – had passed away that previous September. Among her last words to him were: “Richard, don’t you give up. Don’t let anybody tell you, you are through.”
As Nixon’s mind reflected on his mother and her inspiring words, he remembered the simple, yet profound, funeral service at the Friends Church in East Whittier, including the moving eulogy shared by Billy Graham. Possibly, this is when he decided to send a plane to pick up the evangelist, inviting the preacher to spend some time with him at Key Biscayne a few days hence.
Graham was ill and had cancelled all of his engagements. But he likely recalled a moment a few years before – in the autumn of 1963 – when John F. Kennedy had invited Graham to ride with him in the presidential limousine and talk at the White House. Graham was sick that day too, and begged off, asking for a rain check. But before such a conversation would ever take place, the president traveled to Dallas. Likely, Billy didn’t think twice about accepting Nixon’s invitation.
The politician and the evangelist walked Key Biscayne’s beach on New Year’s Eve in 1967, and the conversation was about whether or not Nixon should run. Graham encouraged his friend that day arguing: “You are the best prepared man in the United States to be president.”
The preacher was right.
Among Nixon’s favorite lines to quote were those from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man In The Arena” speech. But Richard Nixon also exemplified what Kipling wrote about in “IF”: “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will, which says to them: ‘Hold on’...”.