Two Presidents Reconsidered

Entrance to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

I have come to enjoy visiting Presidential Libraries. The two in Southern California—those of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon—have been visited by me several times. When Presidents Nixon and Reagan occupied the White House, I was dead set against them. I voted for neither of them and, in fact, threatened to leave the country if Reagan were elected.

Today, Martine and I spent a few hours at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in the Simi Valley. It’s funny how time tends to remove sharp edges. Now I look back and see a gifted speaker who sincerely believed in what he was saying and who was able to convince listeners of his sincerity. Even though his presidency fell apart somewhat toward the end with the whole Iran-Contra negotiation; even though the whole Savings & Loan fiasco was the result of a horrible miscalculation; even though his mind couldn’t wrap itself around that truck bomb in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. military; even though he trusted that sanctimonious snake-in-the-grass Colonel Oliver North—he did not turn out to be an irredeemably awful president like the Current Occupant.

Probably what I liked most about Reagan were the sentiments expressed in his epitaph: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” I could forgive a man who believed that, and I do not think that Ronald Wilson Reagan was given to lying.

Earlier this year, Martine and I paid another visit to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. As President, Nixon may well have been paranoid, but he was also brilliant. The videos of his speeches were articulate and, overall, impressive. Granted that he was not at his best after the Watergate break-in forced him to go into defensive mode, he succeeded in ending the Viet Nam War and opening Communist China. Both were considerable accomplishments, and could not be altogether diminished by the whole Watergate fiasco.

Also, there was a real humility about the man. His presidential library also includes the house in which he was born which was built by his father from a kit. It was as humble a house as any log cabin. And directly outside it is where Richard and Pat Nixon are buried.

 

A Shakespearean Tragedy

The House in Which Richard M. Nixon Was Born

Today Martine and I visited the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda. It is a humble house that was built from a kit by Nixon’s father in 1912. Most of the furniture is original, including the bed in which Hannah Nixon gave birth to the 37th President of the United States. In keeping with that humility, within a few feet of the house’s rear entrance are the graves of Richard and Pat Nixon, who died within a year of each other.

There is no doubt that Nixon was a flawed man. Yet—at the same time—his list of accomplishments in office is impressive. He ended the unpopular war in Viet Nam. He ended the military draft. He was a staunch supporter of civil rights. His Title IX legislation made women’s sports at the collegiate level a major success. He courageously took it upon himself to re-open China to the West. He founded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The list goes on and on.

Yet, despite his smashing victory over George McGovern in the 1972 election, he saw his opponents as a personal threat to him and initiated a burglary of the weakened Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Building. Like our current President, who also maintains an enemies list, Nixon was also a public servant who was intelligent and hard-working on behalf of the American People—which our current President is decidedly not.

The Grave Site of Richard M. Nixon

During the Sixties and Seventies, I was a determined enemy of Nixon. Now I am not so sure I feel that way. There was something about the man which could have made him our greatest political leader of this century. But he was all too human, and his life is like a Shakespearean tragedy of overwhelming promise and ambition brought down by an all-too-human flaw.