Nixon's Mastery of Change Explains His Durability

Nixon's Mastery of Change Explains His Durability

By David Shribman - August 3, 2008

YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- The house was built from a kit, like so many in that time and in this place, and Frank Nixon, who was handy and ambitious, added a fireplace to the plan. There was a piano in the parlor -- Frank's son would tickle the keys as a child and later into adulthood -- and all around the house stood lemon and orange trees, watered from the Santa Ana River.

These were humble enough beginnings -- most of our Republican presidents, apart from Theodore Roosevelt and the Bushes, grew up in circumstances like these -- and, whether in the White House or at the summit in Moscow or Peking, Richard Nixon would not forget that his roots were in citrus country, and in a hardscrabble part of the country he would spend a lifetime striving to lead.

Today the lemon and orange groves are gone, replaced by a multimillion-dollar shrine and library devoted to the 37th president, but his footprints remain.

He went from this tiny house, the scene of economic heartbreak and emotional upheaval, to college and law school, to the House and Senate and to five national campaigns -- the most of any man, excepting Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In truth, his entire life was a campaign -- for acceptance, for advantage, for achievement, finally for redemption.

He found them all, even (toward the very end) the redemption, in one of the most remarkable lives in American history -- a life that spanned the hard days of the Depression, World War II, the Red Scare, the Cold War, the Eisenhower years, the civil rights movement, Vietnam and, of course, Watergate. Other giants in modern American history touched little more than half of these. Nixon touched them all, and in most of them played a principal role, not a cameo.

For the truth is that in the Venn diagram of American life in the 20th century, Richard Nixon was at the intersection. When Bob Dole -- another striving boy from a small rural town who witnessed it all and was scarred by war and Watergate -- delivered his eulogy here at Nixon's funeral 14 years ago, he called the man who stared down Khrushchev at the kitchen debate but who resigned in the face of certain impeachment "the most durable figure of our time."

Nixon is no longer a central figure of our politics -- you hardly hear his name anymore -- but he is not gone, not quite yet.

Barack Obama had just turned 13 when Nixon left office, old enough to remember him and his fall from grace. And Nixon is firmly in the consciousness of Sen. John S. McCain; he was the president who greeted the former prisoner of war after five years of privation in a Hanoi prison. Hillary Rodham Clinton was shaped by Nixon, as well, but for her, a member of the staff of the House committee that weighed Nixon's impeachment, the ties are to the last moments of the last Nixon presidential drama.

If you visit the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in the middle of an election 62 years after Nixon's first congressional campaign, you cannot fail to grasp not only the durability of Nixon, as Dole put it, but also the durability of one of the themes of his life, and of Campaign 2008.

The slogan in his successful congressional campaign of 1946 was simple: "A vote for Nixon is a vote for change." This came in a landmark midterm election year in which the Republicans ran on the most successful congressional theme until Newt Gingrich came up with the Contract With America in 1994: "Had Enough?" Nixon was the master of change.

Six years later, a surprise selection as Eisenhower's running mate, Nixon appeared on the cover of Time magazine for the first time. (In all, Nixon would rate 54 Time covers, more than any person in history.) The subheadline on that 1952 cover was "His Message: Change Trains for the Future."

Later, having been defeated by Sen. John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign and having lost his California gubernatorial bid in 1962, he would mount one of the most remarkable comebacks in history and reappear on the 1968 GOP ticket as the New Nixon.

There was none of the politics of joy to Nixon. Like Aaron Burr, he was a senator, a vice president and a presidential candidate -- yet a figure of mystery, resentment and historical opprobrium. But he didn't subscribe to the Burr view that politics was "fun and honor and profit."

Nixon was a bit of a card sharp -- and had been since his days in the South Pacific, where sailors often broke the monotony with endless card games. "Nixon was as good a poker player as, if not better than, anyone we had ever seen," said Navy Lt. James Udall. "He played a quiet game, but he was not afraid of taking chances. He wasn't afraid of running a bluff. Sometimes the stakes were pretty big, but Nick had daring and a flair and knew what to do."

From this small Quaker community of 200 souls, now surrounded by alfalfa, bean and barley fields, burst a man whose funeral would be attended by five presidents: Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. They would salute a man who started out as a supporter of Chiang Kai-shek and ended up shaking the hand of Mao Zedong, and who had a dangerous taste for poker until the end, though with a dash of daring and flair that delighted his supporters and irritated his detractors.

There will be no campaign pilgrimages to Yorba Linda this election season. It would be far too incendiary a gesture. But Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama cannot begin to understand the country they seek to lead without understanding the most enduring figure of the country's modern history.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (

Copyright 2008

David Shribman

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