This week I’m in the Los Angeles area speaking about Christianity and global statecraft at several schools: Biola, Pepperdine and Westmont, along with our Providence managing editor Marc LiVecche. Today I visited the Nixon Library and Birthplace, as part of my determination to visit homes related to all USA presidents. I’m now only several presidents away!
The Nixon Library, recently renovated, is fantastic, and a rush of tense and exciting recollections hit me as I walked the corridors, as the dramas of his presidency were my first political memories as a small boy. Vietnam and Cambodia, massive anti-war protests (my mother took me at age 6 to the giant and disruptive 1971 May Day demonstration in DC), the visit to China, Brezhnev’s visit to the White House (my grandmother took me to see the welcoming ceremony in 1973, when I was age 8), the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (my third grade teacher, who was Jewish, gave us regular updates), which included USA and Soviet nuclear alerts, followed by Nixon’s visit with Sadat in Egypt, and the 1973 military coup in Chile, plus of course the slow, disastrous unfolding of Watergate, which even children at the time, at least in the DC area, could not escape (my fourth grade teacher gave us a full review, and I returned from school each day to my mother watching the hearings), culminating in Nixon’s 1974 resignation. Everybody had strong opinions about Nixon!
Although an introvert, Nixon always wanted to be where the action was, “in the arena,” starting in boyhood, from performing in plays, to playing football though undersized, to joining the army in WWII though he was effectively exempt, to successfully running for Congress as a young man immediately after the war, thereafter never leaving the public eye, becoming senator and Vice President when only in his thirties, meeting the world’s great leaders, including his favorites and role models Churchill and DeGaulle, losing the presidency, and the governorship, then rebounding to the White House, winning reelection by a spectacular majority, then felled by scandal into the first and only presidential resignation, then to recover again as commentator and counselor.
Nixon’s 1994 funeral was held at the library, in front of the adjoining boyhood home, with Billy Graham officiating, and eulogies from President Clinton and Bob Dole. All five living presidents attended, including Reagan, in one of his last public appearances before Alzheimers. The home, filled with the original furniture from his childhood, including the piano on which he learned to play and the dining table where he was taught to debate public issues, is moving, as it is small, and all four Nixon brothers at the time, two of whom died, shared one room. Nixon was born in his parents’ bedroom, where a quilt from the 1830s from his grandparents still adorns the bed. His grandmother taught him reverence for Lincoln, and he also admired Woodrow Wilson, who was president during his early boyhood.
The Nixons were Quakers originally from Pennsylvania, and his mother was especially devout. Nixon reputedly didn’t cuss (as he would frequently in Watergate tapes) or drink (as he did amply during Watergate) much until joining the army, to which his anti-war family objected. He later explained in his memoirs: “In the face of Hitler and Tojo, pacifism not only failed to stop violence – it actually played into the hands of a barbarous foe and weakened home-front morale.” In adulthood he sometimes attended Norman Vincent Peale’s New York church and Metropolitan Methodist in Washington, DC., though his religious beliefs seemed publicly and even privately undefined. Billy Graham’s funeral sermon commended Nixon’s faith in Christ, though Nixon had years earlier confided to him he thought Christ an agent of God but not necessarily divine.
Quakerism’s pursuit of serenity and inner peace instilled in him a lifelong desire for it though probably he failed really to attain it. During his presidency he scribbled to himself: “Don’t get rattled — don’t waver — don’t react.” But it was hard for him not to react, and his meddling in the Watergate coverup ensured his demise. Ironically in light of his original Quakerism, the Vietnam War greased his fall, as the original Watergate “Plumbers Unit” was formed to prevent leaks to the media about the war. Yet his greatest victories were in foreign policy. His gravestone quotes his own aspiration: “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”
Nixon was energized by crisis. During the 1970 Black September turmoil in Jordan when the PLO with Syrian help tried to overthrow King Hussein, Nixon grinned while rubbing his hands and told his aides there’s nothing like a little excitement to start the day. Crises were energizing because they offered him the chance to solve them. Quoted in the library is one note on a yellow legal pad to himself admonishing that he exploit every day for doing the maximum good for people while he still had power. In the end, despite his failures and character flaws, he sought and somewhat succeeded in making the world a little less dangerous.
Visiting the Nixon Library is a helpful reminder of human frailty and complexity. Its vivid litany of crises foreign and domestic (the year of Nixon’s election included two assassinations, national urban riots and crippling anti-war protests) also prompts the reflection with gratitude that our own times are in many ways tame by comparison.