When Richard Nixon was three years old, he sat on a neighbor’s lap in a horse-drawn buggy being driven by his mother. The buggy took a sharp turn around a corner at high speed, hurling the boy violently to the ground. As his mother struggled to stop the horse, her young child summoned his courage, picked himself up, and ran after the buggy.
He later recalled the incident as his first conscious memory. After he fell, his first instinct was not to withdraw in pain but to get back up, to run, and to challenge the fate that had befallen him. Decades later, the image provides a poignant metaphor for a life spent running and falling and running again.
Today we celebrate Richard Nixon’s centennial. He was born on January 9, 1913, and for the next 81 years, he was the ultimate symbol of American resilience. Nixon saw leadership as high drama, to be played out on a grand scale and without fear or hesitation.
His political career, which he directed with almost epic intensity, dealt triumphs and tragedies in rapid succession: election to Congress in 1946; exposure of top-ranking State Department official Alger Hiss as a spy for the Soviet Union, launching him into the national spotlight; selection as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate in 1952; a well-orchestrated self-defense against false charges with the Fund speech, saving his place on that ticket; the heartbreakingly close loss to John Kennedy in 1960; the defeat in the California gubernatorial race in 1962; the survival of the next six years in the political wilderness; victory in 1968 and a thundering re-election win in 1972; the opening of American relations with China, détente with the Soviet Union, and the end of the war in Vietnam; Watergate and the resignation; and the slow, deliberate climb back to respectability.
At the center of American politics for almost fifty years, Nixon commanded a significance that went beyond political influence. It was cultural. It was definitive. Whether championing anti-communism or the need to help a post-cold war Russia, civil rights or ending the draft, a “peace with honor” in Vietnam or rapprochement with China, responsible arms control, environmental protection, or educational opportunity, Nixon was there, leading. And whether making the decisions in office himself or whispering advice to his successors, Nixon was there. More than any other single figure, Nixon shaped the second half of the American century.
Perhaps this is why he continues to fascinate, even in death. A son of the Great Depression, he built his career on relating to the wildest hopes and fears of Middle Americans, who responded by rewarding him with their votes and their loyalty. Nixon called them the Great Silent Majority, and though he mined a political advantage by defending the values they cherished, they were his values as well.
For most of his life, Nixon had been the ultimate underdog. His childhood was marked by hard work, poverty, and family illness, and yet he was told, as most children were, that if he continued to work hard, he could grow up to be president. The American dream was never that far out of reach, even for the son of a poor citrus farmer in southern California. He saw the Dream, chased it, achieved it, and then sought to restore it. His dreams and mistakes and struggles were, in many ways, our own.
He was a controversial president, a renowned elder statesman, and a complicated American figure, but he was also just a man---and a good and decent one. He wanted to be remembered as a man who brokered peace between nations, but he should also be remembered as a man who ran, fell, picked himself up, and ran again, through a half century of our history, in a relentless drive to make peace for---and with---his country, and ultimately, with himself.
He was once asked how history will remember him, and he replied, “The judgment of history depends on who writes it.” I believe history will be far kinder to Nixon than his contemporaries were, and he will ultimately be considered one of the great modern presidents. Flawed, yes. But he was a tremendously influential leader possessing that rarest of intellectual gifts---vision---and the extraordinary courage to carry it out. This cannot be said for all presidents: Nixon mattered.
Happy 100th birthday, Mr. President! We were lucky to have your leadership, wisdom, and vision----and I was lucky to have your friendship. Godspeed, sir.