Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mr. Nixon

Believe it or not, he feels like an old friend.

Richard Nixon died 15 years ago today. I was standing in the door frame at pal Dean Harned's childhood home when his parents told us the news. I remember Dean came over to my house and we watched the TV coverage until the wee hours of the morning.

Sounds strange, I guess, for someone born four years after his presidency to feel such an attachment, if that's the right word, to our 37th -- and most enigmatic -- president. Well, let me back up and tell you the story.

A hundred years ago, 8th-grade teacher Dave Lewis showed us a video from the show "Our World" that Linda Ellerbee hosted with a man whose name I can't remember. This particular episode highlighted the early 1970s. Up popped a segment on Watergate introduced by the playing of the "Mission:Impossible" theme.

Something clicked.

I wrote a report on Watergate for Lewis at the end of the year. All this coincided with the 20th anniversary of the infamous June 1972 break-in that would ultimately bring down Nixon's administration. I remember I stayed home to watch the CBS retrospective instead of camping out at a friend's house down the street.

I was a weird kid.

But, this led to my developing a lifelong love of history. Stephen Ambrose's excellent three-volume biography of the man from Yorba Linda was the final determining factor in my decision to major in history at UT. I read it the summer before my freshman year and knew I didn't want to study anything else.

I have read no telling how many Nixon books over the years; I have spent more time with him than several family members. I begged my parents to take me to Nixon's library in his hometown during a vacation swing through California. They did.

Throughout all of this I have never been bored.

Elliot Richardson, the attorney general that Nixon fired, once said that Nixon would be so easy to fix, but that if you took away his flaws, you also take away the very drive that caused him to seek the presidency. That's Shakespeareian in its ironic complexity.

One reason why I like Nixon is because he is so obviously ordinary. He could reach such beautiful mountaintops only to sink into dark and disturbing valleys, often at virtually the same time. Whereas Kennedy seemed flawless (and, yes, that was a myth), Nixon seemed like one of us.

If you didn't see it in the theater, rent Ron Howard's excellent film "Frost/Nixon." A scene at the end, in which Nixon and Frost talk about cocktail parties, reveals the essence of the man, a truth that writers and Nixon observers have sought and failed to adequately verbalize for years.

"You know those parties of yours, the ones I read about in the newspapers. Do you actually enjoy those?" Nixon asks Frost.

"Of course," is the reply.

"You have no idea how fortunate that makes you, liking people. Being liked. Having that facility. That lightness, that charm. I don't have it. I never did."

All this from a man who in 1972 won what was then the biggest electoral landslide in presidential history.

Yes, Mr. Nixon is an enigma. And, for better or worse, he feels like an old friend.

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