Beyond Watergate: Richard Nixon's Legacy Offers Lessons In The Trump Era
For the first time since the 1940s, Democrats will control all of the House seats representing Orange County, California. The county has long been a Republican stronghold — it’s where Ronald Reagan launched his political career, and it’s also the home to another famous Republican, the only U.S. president to resign from office: Richard Nixon.
Nixon resigned almost halfway through his second term in office. He was facing almost-certain impeachment and removal from office because of the Watergate Scandal.
The controversy has come to define Nixon’s legacy, but Greg Cumming, resident historian at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, says there was much more to Nixon than Watergate.
“If you are in our research room, there’s very little research on Watergate,” he tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “The opening to China I think is a bigger part of his long-term legacy than Watergate will be.”
Nixon took office during “the most controversial time in American history since the Civil War,” Cumming says, characterized by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots and the Vietnam War.
In his inaugural address, Cumming says, Nixon spoke about bringing the country together in this period marked by continued turmoil.
“He’s trying to get America to start listening to each other,” Cumming says. “Now, does he accomplish that? That’s up to the individuals to decide, whether he accomplishes that goal or exacerbates it.”
On the significance of his foreign policy toward China
“This is a country that since 1949 that we’ve had absolutely zero relationship with — we were actually fighting with them during the Korean War if you remember — and so this is the world’s largest population country, and yet one quarter of the world’s population has no relationship with the United States and has no embassies. Nothing going on. And here is this supposed anti-communist Nixon, and out of nowhere, seemingly, he announces in 1971 that he’ll be visiting Beijing in February of ’72, and this was like a lightning bolt out of the blue. And it really changed the major power structure quite a bit. Although China and the Soviet Union still supplied weaponry to Vietnam, it really made the North Vietnamese a little nervous and gave them a reason also to pursue a negotiated end to the Vietnam War.”
On his legacy when it comes to the Vietnam War
“That one I think is still being written. There are some that will say there are 20,000 casualties during the Nixon administration. What were they there for? What did they accomplish? Other than bringing the [prisoner(s) of war] back. But the fact that he was able to find peace and find a way to extricate the United States with a minimum amount of problems I think is also important and should be part of the equation. There are two sides. Current academics probably come down more on the negative side at this moment, but I think there’s still a lot to be written and that’s one of our most researched topics here at the library.”
On his policy toward the Soviet Union
“Détente. If you were to ask the Reagan administration, the State Department and [National Security Council] staff during 1981, ’82 they’re trying to move so far away from détente, but I think that’s a positive for Nixon trying to come to a less confrontational approach. If you look at today’s world, there’s a great deal of confrontation with the other superpowers, Russia and China, and Nixon was able to truly lessen that and make it a safer world with his treaty with the Soviet Union regarding strategic arms limitation, and that was a positive I think for him. And as Reagan got through the first few years, I think ’84, ’85, ’86 served as a model for how he could work with Gorbachev.”
On Nixon’s domestic policy legacy
“This is the one that really doesn’t get much notoriety at all, positively, I’d say. Desegregation of Southern schools reached its final push during the Nixon administration. You have his push for the Family Assistance Plan, which was a new type of welfare, which would have guaranteed every American at least a minimal level of income. So there are a number of things that he was involved in — the Philadelphia Plan, trying to increase the number of government contracts going to minority-owned business. So he was very active, and it’s not seen a lot — clean air, clean water, things of that nature.”
On Nixon being viewed as a Democrat in today’s world
“Well, you have to remember the politics of the two major parties. The interesting thing is — I explained this to my students quite a bit — is during the ’60s and ’70s, each party had a liberal and a moderate and a conservative wing. So it wasn’t like today where one party is absolutely conservative and the other is absolutely progressive. It didn’t function like that. Jacob Javits was a … liberal Republican. … And then you look at some of the Southern Democrats. They were extremely conservative, but yet they were Democrats, and yet they were Republicans.”
On how growing up in Orange County shaped Nixon
“His policies toward Hispanics, I think comes out of his living in California, and it’s small-town America and those are the type of values he had. It also I think shaped him with a little chip on his shoulder, in that he came from small-town California, rural California, Southern California, didn’t go to the East Coast prep schools, did not go to an Ivy League school, and so he was always trying. He was a very smart, very intellectual person, but he was always trying to demonstrate that as well.”
On why Nixon was so insecure about his re-election, which led to Watergate
“I don’t know. He truly, in my opinion, I thought he, against George McGovern, he was a slam dunk, unless you do something really really bad. George McGovern, not that he was not a good politician or a good senator, he was just a little more progressive than the rest of the United States at this moment and this time. Richard Nixon had the middle, and it demonstrated. When you look at his re-election, it was a landslide. Watergate was not necessary. Something of that level of intelligence gathering I should say. And the interesting thing about Watergate is people don’t understand, they always think that Richard Nixon was the mastermind behind it. There is no evidence whatsoever that he knew of the Watergate plans prior to the break-in. It wasn’t until after it became public knowledge that he was being informed in bits and pieces about what actually happened.”
On comparisons between President Trump and Richard Nixon
“The historian in me says that they’re two different people, apples and oranges to be honest with you. I really haven’t thought that much about that, so it’s not something that I really get into that much. It’s just these are two wholly different individuals with different temperaments in completely different times. Vietnam, that Vietnam era, was just much different than it is today.”
On the lessons from Nixon that would apply today
“I think the lessons are just always keep in mind how important it is to be transparent in government. I think that’s one of the key components. You look back to like Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra. He had the investigation, and he got up and [said] mea culpa. The American electorate is very forgiving if a mistake has been made, but the American electorate is not very forgiving if they feel that they’ve been hoodwinked. And I’m not saying that’s the situation that Donald Trump is [in] — I have no insight into that whatsoever — but I think we can look back in American history and say a president who was up front is usually the best policy instead of trying to cover up. You look back at Lyndon Johnson and what happened in the Vietnam War, the credibility gap that starts, there that’s where problems are created.”
On what most Americans might not know about Nixon
“Well most people I would say probably don’t know that he was raised in a Quaker household, and yet he went against his faith to go fight in World War II because he thought it was so important. Here’s a man who gets accused of sending in the troops and Vietnam being too aggressive as he’s trying to wind down the war. But yet in the heart of hearts raised as a Quaker, he tries in his own way to lessen war, but yet he gets accused of being to a certain extent more aggressive with the military. And second thing, there’s one other thing that most people don’t know is that he was extremely helpful to Native Americans and signed legislation that improved their lives and continues to be very popular on Indian reservations today — signed back land to the Native Americans — so most people would never associate Richard Nixon with Native Americans.”
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