This week, 25 years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, the conventional wisdom seems to hold that his once-abysmal reputation has been largely rehabilitated. It’s a familiar story: On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon leaves Washington with a 24 percent public approval rating, facing a possible prison sentence; by Aug. 9, 1999, he has been transformed into a foreign-policy visionary, a domestic-policy liberal, and no worse a scoundrel than lots of other presidents. “What had seemed impossible in the summer of 1974 had happened,” his biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote (10 years ago already). “Nixon was respectable, even honored, certainly admired.”
The historical irony is delicious–and spurious. Pundits and historians talk as if Nixon has already been rehabilitated, and that’s flat wrong. To be sure, there are favorable and critical views of him, simple and complex ones. But the most vivid and enduring remains the image of Nixon as our national political villain. Tricky Dick lives on.
Even in his early career, Nixon had a reputation as a comeback artist. In 1952 he salvaged his spot as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate with the famous “Checkers” speech. He did it again when he won the presidency in 1968, six years after ABC aired The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon. And we’ve been hearing about Nixon’s latest rehabilitation practically since the resignation itself. Yet too often, it has turned out to be all hype and little substance.
Take his prime-time TV interview with David Frost in 1977. Nixon believed that Frost’s softball questions would allow him to tell the public his side of the Watergate story for the first time. While the broadcast drew some 45 million viewers–the same as an episode of the top-rated Happy Days–Nixon won few converts; after the show, more people lowered their opinions of him than raised them. He remained, Newsweek wrote in a typical review, “careless of the record, heedless of the proper limits of power, unable to plead guilty to anything much worse than ‘screwing up’ and coming no closer in history to that final absolution in history he seeks.”
Nine years later, though, it was Newsweek’s turn to pronounce a return to respectability, splashing Nixon’s photo on the cover with a six-page article, a three-page interview, and a dozen photographs inside. The former president, the article noted, had advised President Reagan, written several books, and made Rolling Stone’s list of “Who’s Hot.” But, again, what the large print gave, the fine print took away. Those who took the time to read the article learned that Nixon’s support came mostly from Republican circles and that die-hard critics scoffed at his alleged foreign policy expertise. An accompanying poll found that six in 10 Americans wished him to remain in exile from public life. With the cover line–“He’s Back”–the magazine’s editors unwittingly helped create the very phenomenon they were supposedly just observing.
In the years following, various episodes served as occasions for one pundit or another to declare Nixon’s reputation restored. Nixon would visit Capitol Hill, or criticize George Bush’s Russia policy in a strategically leaked memo, or meet with President Clinton; each time he was pronounced rehabilitated, even as polls showed that he remained unpopular. His death on April 18, 1994, brought a new zenith of revisionism: an outpouring of praise from President Clinton and other public figures. Television and radio networks aired a relentless parade of fond reminiscences about Nixon, news anchors drummed home the now-familiar lines about his comeback (again creating the fact they were ostensibly just reporting), and the eulogies at the funeral itself never once mentioned Watergate.
Yet even this final rebound proved illusory. No sooner had the tributes subsided than an equally vociferous chorus spoke up to denounce the media’s kid-gloves treatment. Many of the nation’s most esteemed political writers–including Russell Baker, David Halberstam, and Garry Wills–chastised their peers for soft-soaping Nixon’s life in death. The publication of The Haldeman Diaries a month later, with its reminders of Nixon’s scheming, sinister side, confirmed that Watergate would hardly be forgotten soon.
Those proclaiming Nixon’s return miss the subtext of their own proclamations. Implicit–and sometimes explicit–in every story about Nixon’s comeback has been the underlying story of his calculated efforts to come back: He authored foreign-policy books, wined and dined journalists, and waged court battles for control of the White House tapes. These stories don’t dwell on any glorious new achievements on Nixon’s part. Rather, they underscore his campaign for rehabilitation and the public’s alleged willingness to grant it. In his book The Image, historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe events that have no intrinsic news value but get treated as if they do. Nixon’s comeback is a classic pseudo-event, erected almost entirely on self-fulfilling punditry–a series of interviews, a magazine cover, a cascade of adoring eulogies.
This doesn’t mean that no one is rethinking Nixon’s achievements. He continues to keep historians busy. (I’m writing a book about him myself.) And most of the recent major Nixon books–by Herbert Parmet, Jonathan Aitken, Joan Hoff, Tom Wicker, and (this month) Irwin Gellman–have been quite sympathetic. Yet they haven’t made much of a dent in his overall reputation among scholars. In the latest ranking of presidents by professional historians, conducted by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (admittedly no Nixon fan), RN finished in the bottom tier, alongside Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, Warren Harding, and Herbert Hoover. Twenty of 32 historians surveyed judged Nixon’s presidency a “failure”; none called it “great.”
Besides, even more telling than the views of academics are the images of Nixon in popular culture, where he remains resentful, paranoid, and ruthlessly power-hungry. On The Simpsons, for example, Nixon has appeared in caricature at least 20 times (according to the “Simpsons Archive” Web site). He’s almost always portrayed as the dark, suspicious figure circa 1974. On various episodes he is a member, along with Bluebeard and the Grim Reaper, of “the Jury of the Damned”; he takes part in a snake-bludgeoning (in a scandal exposed by a Bob Woodward book); his enemies list is used for dastardly purposes; even his dog Checkers is said to be bound for hell.
Nor do Hollywood movies show any sign of revising Nixon’s image. In 1995, Oliver Stone’s Nixon gave us the familiar, shadowy president, emphasizing his most savage and conspiratorial qualities. “He’s the darkness reaching out for the darkness,” Howard Hunt tells John Dean in the film. “Look at the landscape of his life and you’ll see a boneyard.” The recently released Dick portrays the president, as Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times, “with his hunched shoulders, darting paranoid gaze and crocodile grimace … the quivering, skulking embodiment of a single word: guilty.” For now, that remains the most vivid and pervasive image of Richard Nixon in the American mind. And it’s not likely to fade any time soon.