Social Studies

Richard Nixon: A Tricky Legacy to Teach

By Ross Brenneman — August 07, 2014 4 min read
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On Thursday, August 8, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon announced he would resign the office of the presidency of the United States. Forty years later, historians continue to piece together the bits and pieces of a scandal that still hangs over the country.

Luckily for amateur Nixon historians/jaded children of the ‘60s/today’s students, the last few years, and the anniversary of his resignation, have brought some great teaching resources.

First, Nixon’s presidential library offers a huge chunk of the White House tapes of Oval Office discussions. (At least 18 minutes are missing.) Have all the fun of listening to Richard Nixon tell Henry Kissinger how they would deal with the Soviet Union:

‘I feel so strongly that what the free world needs is a good dose of idealism, that we believe in good things, not pragmatism, by gosh. ... Western civilization must present its case not simply in the pragmatic, cold way, but we’ve got to put some ideological content in.’

If you don’t want to listen to the tapes (they’re a little soft on volume, though still loud enough to doom a presidency), authors Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter released the book The Nixon Tapes in late July, a mammoth transcript of much of the available archive. It offers a view of Nixon and his staff both at their most cynical and offensive (former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger frequently refers to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as, well, something unfit to print in this blog), and Nixon at his most endearing. In an Oct. 17, 1971 call to Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, whose team had lost the World Series that day, Nixon offered some empathy:

Weaver: ‘I’ll tell you, you couldn’t have called at a better time, because it means much more now than it would have meant at another time.’

Nixon: ‘Well, let me tell you, you know, I’ve lost a few, and I know that you don’t get many calls when you lose, but, boy, you fellows were great, and, I saw the game yesterday on TV, and, that was one of the greatest, and the one today was, it could have gone either way.’

Because I, like much of my generation, get my non-education news from late night TV, I would be remiss to gloss over an excellent episode of “The Colbert Report” from Monday, in which host Stephen Colbert interviewed Nixon’s adviser Pat Buchanan, and Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, both of whom offer personal takes on their time with the president (though they’ve had 40 years to think about what exactly “happened” during Watergate):

The Colbert Report

The Washington Post, meanwhile, has compiled a list of Nixon appearances—both real and imaginary—throughout American pop culture over the last four decades.

In Politico Magazine, John Aloysius Farrell wrote on Wednesday about Nixon’s unhappy relationship with the press:

“The crimes of Watergate—bugging, burglary, obstruction of justice—were real. As Nixon told David Frost in their famous 1977 interviews, ‘I brought myself down.’ But it is equally true that the 37th president of the United States was ushered from office by journalists who savored the opportunity.”

It’s not like you won’t find a thousand other books and resources about Nixon and the lead-up to his resignation, either. They offer a helpful complement to a frequent teaching resource: “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 film starring Dustin Huffman and Robert Redford as Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who broke the details of the Watergate scandal, and who turned their reporting into the book on which the movie is based.

And hey, why not show the movie? It encapsulates in just over two hours the story of a harrowing time in American politics, ushering in a golden era for journalism and a new level of distrust in the country’s politicians. That’s why you can find resources for using it as a teaching material from numerous organizations.

The only problem, really, is that “All the President’s Men” isn’t the Gospel truth, and has itself become as integral to the story of Nixon as the original scandal, mired in controversy and revised over time. Bob Woodward’s misrepresentations of his interactions with the Obama Administration have also tarnished his legacy. Consider, too, that even as the Post‘s Watergate investigation led to a boon for journalism, as Gawker’s John Cook suggested in 2013, it would be viewed as completely unethical today. Teachable moments all around.

It all goes hand-in-hand with the history of a complex figure.

As Nixon told Frost in 1977, he understood people’s anger at him:

“ ‘I can only say that, no one in the world, no one in our history, could know how I felt, no one could know how it feels to resign the presidency of the United States. Is that punishment enough? Oh, probably not, but whether it is or isn’t, we have to live with not only the past, but for the future. I don’t know what the future brings, but whatever it brings, I’ll still be fighting.’ ”

Nixon might be gone, but the country continues to scrap over his legacy. Students now just have a lot more material to debate with.

Clarification: Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, but he actually resigned on August 9.

Image: A president no longer here to kick around. Credit: National Archives & Records Administration

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.