What to make of Richard Nixon? Is he a kind of monster, or a classical tragic hero—unlikable, paranoid, and authoritarian in much the same way as Sophocles’s Oedipus? Historians and biographers oscillate between these two poles. His scrappy background, his Quaker beliefs, the ways in which he is both interesting and awful, all combine to form a puzzle to which even his ideological enemies react in sometimes unexpected ways. In their 2004 single “For the Love of Richard Nixon,” the Welsh Marxist rock band Manic Street Preachers hymn a man who stood against everything they have ever manically street-preached:
The love of Richard Nixon, death without assassination
The love of Richard Nixon, yeah they all betrayed you
The love of Richard Nixon, death without assassination
Yeah they all betrayed you
Yeah and your country too11xManic Street Preachers, “The Love of Richard Nixon,” Sony Records, 2004, CD single.
The song seemed, like so many of Nixon’s speeches, a carefully executed act of provocation. To singer Nicky Wire, however, it was “purely a love song,” as he told one reporter.22x“Nixon’s Cheerleaders,” The Scotsman, October 24, 2004, https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/music/nixon-s-cheerleaders-1-1398760. To another, he said, “I’m attracted by egotistical, megalomaniacal, paranoid people. There’s a sample on the record where Nixon says, ‘I have never been a quitter.’ I feel a bit of empathy with that. It’s the idea of the ugly duckling. Radiohead are Kennedy, Manic Street Preachers are Nixon.”33xDorian Lynskey, “Not So Manic Now,” The Guardian, October 1, 2004, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2004/oct/01/2.
From the beginning, he was polarizing. By the 1980s, even those who agreed with him saw him as somehow ill omened, a subject to avoid. Nixon skulked around the edges of politics, snubbed by former rivals and protégés, most of them equally villainous—at least if we take the impact of domestic and foreign policy on the size of the quadrennial human body count as seriously as we do our procedures, our textbook separations of powers. He sat in California, writing dull, massive books, proving once again the salience of his law school nickname, “Iron Butt.”
For a moment, in the 1990s, the country seemed to recalibrate its low estimation of Richard Nixon. Iran-Contra made Watergate look quaint, a comedy (for Watergate ended, as Iran-Contra had not, with vice soundly punished). Historians such as Joan Hoff and Tom Wicker argued that Nixon had, from sheer pragmatism—the same calculating-politician intelligence that had horrified Nixon watchers throughout his career—delivered important policy victories to the center-left. In celebrating Nixon, however grudgingly, for what was in many cases merely a canny willingness to bargain with the other side, the center-left was really mourning the loss of its own power, the end of an era in which it had seemed to represent part of that political reality which pragmatism must conciliate.
The high-water mark of this tide of revisionism was, perhaps, Oliver Stone’s memorably batty 1995 film Nixon, which portrays the thirty-seventh president as a monster of ambition and psychosexual dysfunction, yet also as a principled victim of deep-state conspiracy, who stakes his presidency on unfreezing relations with China. Like its subject, the film contradicts itself brazenly and unconsciously. In the director’s cut, the film ends with footage of then-president Bill Clinton speaking at Nixon’s 1994 funeral. “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close,” Clinton said, pleading for nuance, as he might well do.
By the end of the twentieth century, the tide had turned again. New White House recordings surfaced. Nixon said racist things. He evaluated the respective long-term survival prospects of black people and “Mexicans” as one would size up the chances of football teams in preseason. In a tape that surfaced early in the 2000s, he complained about the Jews to Billy Graham, who enthusiastically agreed with the complaints. In this way, his political intelligence, his desire to stage-manage the way history received him—the desire that drove him to fight the release of every recording until the last possible point in time, rather than letting them emerge in the 1970s and be forgotten—ensured that little hits to his reputation would continue to appear well into a century he could barely imagine, and that could barely imagine him. He had reinstalled tape recorders in the White House, in 1971—Johnson had used a far less effective recording system, which Nixon had removed in 1969—because he was already planning his postpresidential memoirs and wanted a thorough account. The tapes, of course, ended his presidency. Again, political intelligence and folly seemed inseparable in him—seemed, indeed, one thing.
Thus, in his more recent depictions, Nixon is back to being a monster. In a 2011 Doctor Who episode, in which the time-traveling hero visits the year 1970, Nixon is made to utter the line “There are no monsters in the White House!” It’s treated as a joke, of course. In Frost/Nixon, the play (2006) and film adaptation (2008) based on his famous postresignation interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon is a specifically lawyerly kind of malefactor, a person so well-versed in lawbooks that he cannot be bound by them. “If the president does it, it’s not illegal!” he says, and the viewer is meant to remember that Dick Cheney, too, believed this. In this way, Nixon actualizes the potential for evil inherent in a written law code, in law as a thing that a person might master and use to selfish ends. The current television show Watchmen (2019–) follows its comic source material in imagining a world where Nixon, in abolishing term limits and winning the war in Vietnam, has paved the way for an eternal hegemony of the superpowerful. (In the TV show, he is succeeded by a President Robert Redford, who bans guns, blocks all social media, and gives black people reparations. The world of this TV show also does not appear to be menaced by climate change. For some reason, we are intended to regard this world as a dystopia.)
In 2016, in the course of writing the most sympathetic biography of Nixon one could honestly produce, John A. Farrell unearthed something more consequential than any racist slurs muttered on tapes. He found notes proving what journalists and historians had long suspected: Nixon, then still a presidential candidate, sabotaged the 1968 Paris peace talks by promising the South Vietnamese that he’d get them a better deal once he was elected.44xJohn A. Farrell, “Nixon’s Vietnam Treachery,” New York Times, December 31, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/31/opinion/sunday/nixons-vietnam-treachery.html. See also Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (New York, NY: Summit Books, 1983). Even those of us who find American foreign policy generally cynical and imperialistic must rank the knowing prolongation of a war, for political benefit, an infinitely worse crime than the bugging of a hotel room. That Nixon is a monster seems henceforth a fact beyond the recuperative powers of even the most intrepid revisionist.