YORBA LINDA, Calif. — The photo of President Nixon and Elvis in the Oval Office is classic souvenir kitsch at the Nixon Presidential Library. Postcards, posters and magnets feature the enigmatic, iconic couple.

Both lost their ways from their humble youths. Both got caught in their self-made webs of grandiosity. Both saw their dreams end a bit too soon.

Nixon is known for his enemies list and rampant paranoia that culminated in his resignation after the Watergate scandal. The “gate” attached to every scandal since is part of Nixon’s legacy.

It’s easy to frame him only within the context of Watergate and miss his other contributions. Granted, his library tells his story from his vantage point, but it also has an entire exhibit wing dedicated to the details of Watergate. One can even listen to the infamous gaps in the infamous tape.

Nixon began his life on a citrus farm, one of five sons of two hard-working parents who insisted their boys read and follow world events so they could discuss both at the supper table. When his father couldn’t make the farm profitable, the family moved to Whittier.

The future president was a top scholar, finishing second in his class at Whittier College and third in his law class at Duke after heading the law review. Although a Quaker, he joined the Navy in World War II, got assigned to the Pacific Theater and kept angling to get moved closer to the fighting.

As a brash young attorney turned congressman, he ferreted out spy Alger Hiss during the Red Scare. He caught the eye of movers and shakers. Two years later, he was elected to the Senate.

Two years after that, he was on the presidential ticket as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate.

Interestingly, he wasn’t afraid to take his case to the people. When opponents alleged Nixon had received improper gifts, he gave his famous Checkers the dog speech and volunteered to leave the ticket to avoid causing problems for Ike. After the televised speech, Western Union was flooded by telegrams from people wanting Nixon to continue as the vice presidential candidate.

Years later, he would offer again to step aside to avoid controversy. But between those televised speeches, Nixon showed himself to be a wonk before people used that term.

He was a really cerebral guy. Presidents who came after him often relied on his knowledge of foreign affairs and freely admitted so.

Nixon opened relations with China and stood toe to toe with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. He traveled the world and put gentle pressure on leaders to work with the United States.

President Obama could learn a lesson from Nixon on how to handle the Russians. Instead of playground pouting with Vladimir Putin, he should sidle right up to him and engage in Kitchen Debate No. 2.

Nixon led peace efforts in the Middle East and acted swiftly to support Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Prime Minister Golda Meir said he saved Israel.

He worked hard on domestic issues, too.

Some of his achievements include federal initiatives to increase minority hiring and business opportunities, voluntary desegregation of schools in seven Southern states, federal policy to give American Indian tribes more autonomy, formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, creation of the National Cancer Centers and approval of Title IX to prevent gender discrimination at schools that receive federal aid.

And then there was Watergate. Presidents from FDR through Nixon secretly taped their conversations. Nixon got caught. While he never admitted ordering the break-in, he told the late interviewer David Frost that he thought the president should be above the law.

So has every president since then as each has usurped more authority into the executive branch.

If Nixon had not resigned, the chaos in America would not have subsided. He would have been ineffective for the bulk of his second term. While history judged Watergate as ignoble, Nixon’s resignation was noble. He got out of the way.

After President Clinton was impeached by the House, he accomplished very little in the rest of his term because the cloud of Monica Lewinsky would not blow away.

And when it was all over, Nixon was buried beneath a simple black granite headstone bearing a simple epitaph: “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com

© 2013 by Nerissa Young


This Week's Circulars