IN MARCH 2011, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, opened its new Watergate Gallery—the portion of the museum devoted to the constitutional crimes for which President Nixon will always be known. For years, visitors had seen an extended apologia for Nixon, which absurdly suggested that Democrats planned to impeach him in order to make House Speaker Carl Albert president. That exhibit, drawn up with Nixon’s involvement, was always best understood not as credible historical interpretation but as a campaign in the former president’s lifelong quest for rehabilitation. But now, in its place, stands a meticulously researched and beautifully displayed multimedia exhibit that draws upon recently videotaped oral histories, newly unearthed archival documents, and excerpts from the roughly 4,000 hours of tape recordings that Nixon surreptitiously made as president. The exhibit traces an array of White House–sponsored crimes that began well before and extended well after the famous break-in of June 17, 1972, the fortieth anniversary of which occurs this month.
The extirpation of the old Nixonian propaganda came about because of an irony of history. Nixon had tried to abscond with vital records of his presidency and, after he lost a legal challenge, was excluded from the club of presidents whose libraries enjoyed official government blessing. But, by the twenty-first century, Nixon’s daughter Julie came to see that the museum couldn’t survive unless it became a part of the National Archives, with the operating budgets that such membership affords. After a battle with her sister, Tricia, which divided the dwindling band of Nixon loyalists, the Nixon library went legit in 2007.
The library director chosen, academic historian Timothy Naftali, was committed to unpoliticized scholarship. Despite some often-fierce resistance from the Nixon Foundation, as well as from old-guard archivists in Washington used to accommodating the Nixonites, Naftali succeeded in expanding the museum’s public programming and in writing and pushing through the new, historically credible exhibit. Though Naftali had to fight to get the display opened, what was remarkable about its ultimate reception was how little consternation it aroused. Some of the usual suspects carped, but no substantial opposition arose in the press, or from Congress, even under Republican control. The Nixon Wars, it seemed, were over—or coming to a close.
CONSENSUS AROUND Nixon’s guilt, to be sure, is not a new phenomenon. Nixon’s resignation itself had marked a rare point of bipartisan agreement. But, for the next two decades, Nixon waged a vigorous comeback bid, and many people who should have known better began to parrot specious clichés—that Watergate was a third-rate burglary, that other scandals were somehow worse, that Nixon’s crimes should not overshadow his accomplishments.
Then, at Nixon’s funeral in 1994, the world’s statesmen gathered in something resembling reverence. President Bill Clinton was joined by Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush Sr., and pundits praised Nixon for his diplomatic accomplishments—détente, the opening to China—hailing him as the foreign policy sage that he had yearned to be. Clinton led the way, declaring a national day of mourning and, then, at the funeral, urging that the time of “judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.” That carefully worded statement was classic Clinton: ambiguous enough to be read differently by different audiences. But people took it as absolution. If only Nixon could go to China, only Clinton could go to Yorba Linda.
For several years afterward, some pundits and scholars started to praise Nixon with surprising frequency and enthusiasm—although often in terms that neither his enemies nor his boosters would have recognized. The New Nixon of the 1990s was not the familiar, divisive liberal-hater, but, improbably, an innovator in domestic policy and an activist steward of the Great Society—and the last of the big-spending liberals. It was the relatively conservative political climate of the Reaganized ’90s (compared with that of the 1960s and 1970s) that triggered this reassessment. It became a reflex to proclaim that Nixon was more progressive than Clinton; when Clinton unveiled his market-based health care reform plan, or passed into law a welfare overhaul, observers noted that Democrats would surely have preferred policies like those Nixon had proposed two decades before. “Nixon advanced far more expansive social policies,” wrote Jacob Weisberg in 1996, summing up the reigning view, “than any Democrat would dare suggest today.” Journalists from E.J. Dionne to Michael Barone looked back with admiration on Nixon’s farsighted policies toward Native Americans, worker safety, and the arts.
This reevaluation began to change during the impeachment drive, which returned Nixon to the spotlight. As historian David Kyvig noted in his intriguing book, The Age of Impeachment, Republicans and Democrats alike invoked Watergate: Some of Clinton’s antagonists seemed to be motivated in part by historical grievance, seeing a chance to balance the partisan scales. Independent Counsel Ken Starr tried to shroud himself in the legitimacy of the Watergate investigation by retaining Sam Dash—counsel to the Ervin Committee—as his ethics adviser, although the plan backfired when Dash quit in protest over Starr’s behavior. Ann Coulter, then an enterprising young right-wing lawyer, leveraged the Clinton impeachment into fame and fortune with a book that claimed Clinton’s transgressions outstripped Nixon’s, likening Watergate to a “staffing problem.”
Clinton’s defenders cited Watergate, too—to argue that his offenses fell short of the impeachment standard. At the House hearings, Representative Zoe Lofgren, who had worked for the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, quoted from the committee’s 1974 findings: “Not all presidential misconduct is sufficient to constitute grounds for impeachment. ... Only ... conduct seriously incompatible with either the constitutional form and principles of our government or the proper performance of constitutional duties of presidential office.” Clinton’s witnesses included famous Watergate heroes: Robert Drinan, Elizabeth Holtzman, Richard Ben-Veniste. By acquitting Clinton of the charges, Congress—reflecting public opinion—thus rejected the argument that Clinton’s crimes rivaled Nixon’s. Indeed, Clinton’s acquittal implicitly repudiated the notion long advanced by Nixon’s defenders that “everybody does it.” No, not every president does what Nixon did.
Clinton’s ordeal hurt Nixon in another way, too. As the consummate expression of take-no-prisoners partisanship, the impeachment reminded the nation of the dangerous reach of the anything-goes politics that Nixon had fostered a generation earlier. In the Nixonian view, no trick was considered too dirty, no blow too low, no law too sacrosanct to stand in the way of partisan gain. And, where Nixon had embodied those dark ideals for one generation, George W. Bush would exemplify them for the next.
THE BUSH YEARS dredged up memories of Nixon’s lawless style. Bush was charged with resurrecting Nixon’s “imperial presidency.” Like Nixon, he played politics with national security to silence critics of a military adventure that was losing popular support. Both men brandished flag pins on the lapel and patriotism as a cudgel. Both were secretive in the extreme, isolating themselves from the news media, rigidly prescribing what staffers could say to the press, raging about leaks, deviously trying to control the news. Both men honed a conservative populism that vilified academics, journalists, bureaucrats, and professionals as out-of-touch elites, and politicized areas of the government once deemed the province of nonpartisan experts.
That all these Nixonian traits showed up in the political style of the Bush administration was not a coincidence. It was an inheritance. Several of Bush’s key aides learned their politics from Nixon’s men. Karl Rove ran the College Republicans during Watergate. In 1970, Rove had surreptitiously gained entry to the campaign headquarters of a Democratic candidate for state office in Illinois, filched campaign letterhead, and sent out fake fliers aiming to discredit the Democrat—a classic Nixonian dirty trick. During Watergate itself, Rove used a sham grassroots outfit (another favorite trick of Nixon’s) to gin up ostensibly organic support for the embattled president. The swift-boating campaign against John Kerry in 2004 also had its roots in the Nixon years, when the president and his thuggish aide Chuck Colson sought to discredit the young spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In the scholarly world, meanwhile, the man-bites-dog novelty of the “liberal Nixon” was wearing off, and new books were more likely to emphasize Nixon’s abuses of power once again.
What caught the zeitgeist was Frost/Nixon, an unlikely hit. Political plays rarely succeed, but this account of Nixon’s 1977 interviews by the British TV personality David Frost—which originated in London in 2006, came to Broadway in 2007, hit the big screen in 2008, and notched an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in 2009—enjoyed both commercial and critical acclaim. It starred, appropriately enough, the former Dracula, Frank Langella, as Nixon. Although it had its flaws—it wrongly suggested that Frost had extracted an apology from Nixon in those interviews—the play (and film) nonetheless revealed the essence of Tricky Dick to a new generation, which viewed it, inescapably, through the lens of Bush’s high-handed exercise of presidential power. In the play, as in the real-life interviews, Nixon’s telltale line came when he said, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Audiences roared. It was hard to hear such a line in the late Bush years without summoning to mind the expansive view of executive prerogative repeatedly expressed by the president and his staff. Frost/Nixon, moreover, endorsed an opinion that’s seldom heard in journalistic commentary but that increasingly seems beyond dispute: Nixon was never really rehabilitated. Even during the early Clinton years, when Washington welcomed him back, out in the land, his name remained a synonym for presidential corruption and crime. What should have been apparent all along had finally been recognized.
One person who seems to have known this was Nixon himself. For all his labors in the field of post-presidential image-making, Nixon would confess in candid moments that he doubted their efficacy. In 1990, after he had published one of his many forgettable memoirs, he sighed to his research assistant that the book had failed to change his public reputation or blot out the stubborn fact that no other president ever directed a criminal conspiracy from the White House. “None of the other stuff in there, like on the Russians or the other personal stuff, made it into the news or even the reviews,” he despaired. “Watergate—that’s all anyone wants.”
David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Rutgers University and is at work on a history of presidents and spin. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.