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Morton: Complicated, enigmatic best describe Nixon

On this day (April 22) in 1994, the 37th U.S. president, Richard Milhous Nixon, died at age 81 in New York City.

During his political career (1947-1974) and ever after, Nixon was beloved by some for his manifold achievements (especially for his work as a prominent anti-Communist member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, for his foreign policy initiatives as president in ending America’s direct involvement in the Vietnam War, and for establishing normal diplomatic relations with Red China and the Soviet Union) and bitterly hated by others (for being overly vindictive, ardent and paranoid in his anti-Communism crusade, for his frequent abuse of government power for political purposes, and for his propensity to deceive and lie).

Interestingly, assessments of Nixon as a human being and public servant vary widely. Although Nixon was the only president to resign – which he did Aug. 8, 1974, when faced with impeachment and possible removal from office – he did have and continues to have defenders.

In 1968, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower mildly praised his former vice president as “a man of great reading, a man of great intelligence, and a man of great decisiveness.” Michigan Republican Gov. George Romney wrote that he was “always struck by the president’s breadth and depth of knowledge ... and his ability to articulate significant considerations in so many fields.” Then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller wrote in 1972 that his Republican party rival (often referred to as “Tricky Dick”) was “a man of action. ... A man of accomplishment. A man of courage. We need this man of faith in America ... who has brought us to the threshold of peace.”

Former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill wrote in 1987 that “the irony about Nixon is that his pre-Watergate record is a lot better than most liberals realize. It was Nixon, after all, who opened the door to China and who eventually brought American troops from Vietnam.”

However, Nixon also had and continues to have numerous critics. In 1974, Georgia governor and future president Jimmy Carter castigated Nixon by writing: “In two hundred years of history, he’s the most dishonest president we’ve ever had. I think he’s disgraced the presidency.” President Harry Truman declared that “Richard Nixon is a no-good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in it.”

Influential columnist Walter Lippman observed during the 1960 presidential campaign that the Republican candidate appeared to be “an indecisive man who lacks that inner conviction and self-confidence which are the mark of the natural leader and governor of men.”

Democratic opponent in the 1972 election, George S. McGovern, noted that “the men who have collected millions in secret money, who have passed out special favors, who have ordered political sabotage, who have invaded our offices in the dead of night – all of these men work for Mr. Nixon. ... Their power comes from him alone. They act on his behalf, and they all accept his orders.”

Historians and political scientists usually rank Nixon as being one of the worst U.S. presidents while acknowledging that there were positives, both in domestic and foreign affairs, during his five years (1969-1974) as chief executive. However, there is consensus that because of his inclination to prevaricate, the Watergate Scandal, his irrational paranoia regarding Communism, and his lying about the bombing of Cambodia, Nixon richly “warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office.”

Despite a partially successful post-presidential campaign to resurrect his historical reputation through his writings (he authored seven books), foreign travel, and advising his Oval Office successors, Richard Nixon remains the most complicated, enigmatic of all U.S. presidents.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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