Evaluate President Richard Nixon as a person and president. Explain what his major strengths and weaknesses were. Give specific examples.
Most American presidents have been complicated figures. The kind of personality that pursues and ultimately wins the highest office in the land is, almost by definition, outside the realm of the normal. A combination of an orientation towards public service, a thirst for power, and a large ego often define individuals who seek the presidency, and Richard Nixon sought it twice, once in 1960, and again in 1968. His first campaign for the presidency remains among the most consequential in modern American history. His second remains among the most contentious and analyzed by historians and political scientists. The voluminous files from his term(s) in the White House, especially those stored and maintained at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, and those stored at the National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, D.C., continue to be scrutinized for signs into the psyche of the only president to resign from office.
As previously closed or classified files from the Nixon Administration are gradually opened to the public, the portrait that emerges is not particularly flattering. Nixon spent most of his adult life in public office, as a congressman, senator, vice president, and president. In the years following his resignation in disgrace from the presidency on August 9, 1974, he briefly disappeared from the spotlight before reemerging as a (mostly) respected elder statesman. It was in those final years of his life that now-former President Nixon finally seemed to find a sense of inner peace that eluded him throughout much of his career. One can speculate that, absent the pressures of running for and holding high-level political office and, more importantly, free from the personal and professional rivalries that almost defined his political career, Nixon was able to relax and purge himself of the demons that seemed to haunt him.
Distinguishing between Richard Nixon as a person and Richard Nixon as a president is not easy. Nixon was the proverbial political animal, consumed with the pursuit of political power. Politics was the overriding passion of his life, so contrasting the public and private Nixon may not be necessary. If one judges the private Nixon on the basis of the surreptitious recordings he kept in the Oval Office—recordings that provide an invaluable insight into his personality—then he was an enormously coarse individual, prone to excessive use of profanity and racist comments. Nixon the person appears to have been a bitter, vindictive individual willing to manipulate the democratic process for personal gain.
Richard Nixon the president is, as noted, difficult to distinguish from Nixon the person. In some ways, however, the president exceeds the private person. Nixon is credited by many scholars with having been particularly adept at the conduct of foreign policy, with the "opening" to China his signature accomplishment. There is no question that the president was an intelligent, informed practitioner of world affairs.
There is a case to be made for the convergence of the private and presidential sides of Nixon that seriously mars his legacy. Nixon was a very conspiratorial-minded individual, and some of his foreign policy actions have been deemed criminal by some scholars. The secret bombing of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and the brutality by the Pakistani military against its break-away territory (subsequently known as Bangladesh), supported by Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, badly tarnished the late president's foreign policy legacy.
To a large degree, the personal Nixon informed President Nixon's ability to govern. Consumed with hatred toward his political enemies, he allowed the darker nature of his being to dictate public policy. Earlier, I suggested that the post-presidency Richard Nixon seemed to finally find a sense of inner peace. It is interesting that, in the now-disgraced and resigned-from-office-or-face-impeachment president's farewell speech to the White House staff, Nixon, in closing, warned the assembled that the bitterness that defined him was instrumental in his political demise:
Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.