This year (January 9) marks the centennial of the birth of America's 37th President, Richard Milhous Nixon. Coincidently, 2013 also marks the 40th anniversary when the scandal known as Watergate would pick up the requisite momentum that would lead to Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1974.
Dark, complicated, brilliant are among the adjectives commonly used to describe Nixon. All would be accurate, but Watergate is the cloud that looms over his legacy.
Recently, I visited the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. To the library's credit, Watergate is the first exhibit. From copies of canceled checks of $250,000 to damning recordings, where one hears the president brazenly stating that lying would be the most viable option, there is no attempt by the library to cover up Nixon's culpability.
This approach achieves two goals. First, it removes any suspicion that the library would seek to whitewash the Nixon legacy. Second, it allows one to view the rest of the Nixon legacy unencumbered by the haze of Watergate.
The extreme Nixon critics are supported by the pillars of Watergate on the left and his backing of price controls on the right. While Nixon stands in recent history as one of the most disliked presidents, Watergate and price controls do not tell the entire story.
According to a September 2012 New York Times article, Nixon is second among " America's Greenest President" behind Theodore Roosevelt and ahead of Jimmy Carter. Without Watergate, it becomes easier to see that Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and signed the Clean Air Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act
There are myriad reasons to be critical of Nixon's Vietnam policy. But Vietnam must be viewed through the lens of realpolitik of 18 years and three American presidents who systematically kicked the can down the road, and a fourth president, Lyndon Johnson, who on day-one was handed a ripening quagmire and did not possess the anti-Communist bona fides to do what needed to be done.
Nixon negotiated an end to the Vietnam conflict where the last U.S. troops left in 1975--10 years after Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reportedly told Johnson the war was not winnable by any metric America used to declare victory.
Where Nixon generally receives his highest marks is his trip to China. It was an important step to normalize relations between two nations that had not been on speaking terms for 25 years.
His staunch anti-communist stands over the decades allowed Nixon to do something, though clearly in the United State's interest, no liberal would dare. Moreover, Nixon's trip to China was the first step to challenge the long held unexamined assumption by the West in general and the United States in particular: Communism was not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
The goals of Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong were not the goals of the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin, and subsequently Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev.
Back in 1963, six years before becoming president, Nixon was thinking about China. As a private citizen he met with French President Charles de Gaulle who cautioned Nixon it was not in the best interest of the U.S. to leave China "isolated in their rage."
It would appear Nixon's uncontrollable insecurities are perhaps the only thing that stands between his being considered a great president. But those uncontrollable insecurities was crucial to who Nixon was, they can be found in his great moments as well as his failures.
The unanswerable question remains: could Nixon have been president without those insecurities?
Too bad he was unable to heed the advice he gave to his staff on his final day as president: "Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you never win unless you hate them and then you destroy yourself."