Yesterday was Richard Nixon’s birthday. “Tricky Dick,” who was the only American President ever to resign from office, would have been 101.
It’s interesting that Nixon, much more so than many other of his political contemporaries, remains a relevant, well-known figure today. Nobody talks much about Hubert Humphrey, or Barry Goldwater, or even Lyndon Johnson or Dwight Eisenhower, but Nixon always finds his way into political conversations. For example, some people are comparing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s long press conference yesterday to Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech, in which Nixon adeptly defused allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct. The “Checkers” speech was the first real evidence of the power of TV in dealing with a political scandal, and it remains a touchstone even today.
Nixon isn’t remembered for his political positions. There isn’t a Nixon wing of the Republican party, and it’s hard to think of any current politician who is even remotely comparable to him. Instead, Nixon’s existence as a significant political figure at the dawn of the TV and mass media age, his demonstrations of how TV can have a positive and negative impact, and the fact that he endured the worst scandal in the nation’s history and resigned in disgrace will always make him a point of comparison.
And for every positive juxtaposition — Will Christie’s press conference be as effective as the “Checkers” speech? Is President X’s new global initiative the boldest foreign policy gambit since Nixon’s China strategy? — there will be thousands of uses of Nixon as a negative marker. The worst debate appearance since Nixon seemed to have a five o’clock shadow in his debate with Kennedy. The worst self-pitying press conference since Nixon said “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” after he lost a race for California Governor in 1962. The most self-revealing comment since Nixon said “I am not a crook.” And, of course, the worst scandal since Watergate. The fact that, 40 years later, people still try to put “gate” on every scandal is powerful testimony to Nixon’s lasting place in the American political firmament.
Richard Nixon resigned 40 years ago and died 20 years ago, but the references to him are still fresh and constant. He will always be a significant historical figure and an instant measuring stick when something bad happens to a politician who aspires to the presidency or who already occupies the Oval Office.