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The Case Against Richard Nixon

Watergate looms over the Nixon legacy. (AP Photo/Charlie Tasanadi)

Earlier this week we made the case for Richard Nixon's inclusion in the Fix Political Hall of Fame. Today we make the opposite argument.

Any conversation about Nixon and his legacy begins and ends -- necessarily -- with Watergate.

The break-ins at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which ultimately led to the unraveling of Nixon's presidency and a permanent scar on the body politic, is symbolic of everything that was wrong about Tricky Dick: paranoia, an inability to contextualize the happenings in the political world around him, and a troubling willingness to bend and break the rules in service of his ambitions.

All politicians are paranoid to some extent -- after all, their entire lives are dependent on the ever-changing whims of the American public which they monitor constantly for even the slightest variation -- but Nixon took paranoia to new heights.

He was convinced throughout his political career that various entities were out to get him -- communists, the media, an amorphous elite set in Washington -- and went out of his way to counteract these alleged plotters.

It was Nixon's paranoia that led him to order the secret taping of all White House conversations from 1971 to 1973, a decision that led to nearly 4,000 hours of recordings and, ultimately, proved his involvement and culpability in Watergate.

Nixon's mountains-out-of-molehills tendency was also on prominent display during the Watergate scandal.

By June 1972, Nixon, a consummate politician, should -- and likely did -- know that he was in very strong position to win re-election against the Democratic nominee, which became Sen. George McGovern.

Polling showed Nixon as quite popular among the American electorate thanks to his surprisingly deft diplomatic touch on display during trips to China and Russia during his first term, and the belief among the public that he was -- finally -- bringing the Vietnam War to a close. (Nixon announced the peace accord that formally ended the war in January 1973 just a few months after winning a second term.)

And yet, despite all of that, Nixon and his cohorts wanted more information about what the Democrats were doing although the ostensible motive behind the Watergate break-in was to investigate alleged foreign contributions to Democrats.

Had Nixon simply ignored the Democrats altogether -- an approach he was temperamentally incapable of adopting -- everything that followed from Watergate could have been avoided. Nixon crushed McGovern with 61 percent of the vote in November 1972 but less than two years later he became the first president to resign the office.

The final piece of the puzzle for understanding why Nixon should be excluded from the Fix Political Hall of Fame is his striking willingness to stretch (and break) the law.

From the start of his national political career, ethics questions dogged him. Nixon's famous "Checkers" speech, after all, came in response to allegations that a group of wealthy California businessmen had funneled money to him -- an allegation that threatened to end his vice presidential bid in 1952 before it even began in earnest.

Nixon appeared to learn the wrong lesson from that near-death political experience. Rather than be chastened by the episode, he appeared emboldened -- believing that his political abilities and moral righteousness could overcome any odd appearance that his actions might give.

His presidency was defined by an ever-increasing ease with skirting the established rule of law -- a theory of government summed up by Nixon's infamous "when the president does it, that means it is not illegal" quote to David Frost in 1977, a moment immortalized by the movie "Frost/Nixon".

Seen through the lens of Nixon's entire political career then, Watergate becomes not an isolated incident but rather a microcosm of the larger problems with the 37th president of the United States -- problems that should keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

Next week: The cases for and against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 3, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Hall of Fame  
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Watergate Watershamte! I do not understand how anyone can look at Rciahrd Nixon and not see the evil that emanates from him. When I was 7 years old I saw a photo of him in my local newspaper and had a visceral reaction to him then. That was 56 years ago. HE should be remembered as the president who finally got to start the ball rolling on the destruction of progress in the United States

Posted by: agrossman1 | July 7, 2009 8:38 AM | Report abuse

I would vote for Nixon too. As Chris Cillizza said "Part of membership in the Fix Political Hall of Fame is possessing a rabid (and uncontrollable) love for the game of politics. No one this side of Bill Clinton can match Nixon in this regard."

Posted by: Lisa421 | July 6, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Yes, I am voting on the GAME of Politics too.

Posted by: JakeD | July 6, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

A lot of this goes to the question of "What is a politics hall of fame?" My previous contention was interest and legacy as goes their involvement in the political game. If we are talking about a legacy of policy, I could argue many people that deserve more recognition than Clinton or LBJ (although Reagan's policy legacy has lasted a while). FDR certainly has a long lasting policy legacy. I was under the impression that we are looking at the game of politics.

If the game of politics is our discussion, then I would consider Nixon to be the pinnacle of interest. The argument against him is that he is largely famous for revolutionizing the "what not to do" of politics. His most famous legacy is a gross miscalculation of his own popularity. He did commit political suicide and did so in a grand fashion. Very interesting and revolutionized politics and political coverage, but not necessarily for the better. If the Hall of Fame is reserved for people who revolutionized politics for the better, it may have to end with Abe Lincoln.

Posted by: andygoldman | July 6, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I meant "Face the Nation".

Posted by: JakeD | July 6, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse


Care to answer MY question to you now: is my position clear enough for YOU?

Posted by: JakeD | July 6, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

hard = harm (no pun intended, honestly ; )

Posted by: JakeD | July 6, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

With perfect 20/20 hindsight, it is now clear that bin Laden learned the U.S. was weak under Bill Clinton. 9/11 would never had happened if bin Laden had been taken out in 1999. An even larger tragedy exists because Bill Clinton failed to do anything to rid this country of abortion. Almost as many unborn children are murdered EVERY DAY as the number of people killed on 9/11. A pro-life Democrat (which is what he and Gore were before their ambition turned to the national stage) could have gone a long way to addressing this shameful institution. Just as Lincoln gets credit for ending slavery, the Democrats could have ended abortion. That's why Clinton is worse politician than Nixon.

The Office of President of the United States also carries great moral authority -- for all of Nixon's political faults, he (at least) never testified falsely, although he got close to being impeached himself -- have you ever read Clinton's Articles of Impeachment?

Art. I "... willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury ..."

Art. II "... prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice, and has to that end engaged personally, and through his subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or scheme designed to delay, impede, cover up, and conceal the existence of evidence and testimony ..."

Art. III "... abuse of power ..."

Yes, you may note that Nixon had similar Articles of Impeachment readied for him, but that's the difference -- Nixon resigned in order to spare the nation -- apart from that, Clinton spawned a excess in teen sex that will take generations to fully understand. A new documentary by Canadian filmmaker, Sharlene Azam (also NOT a Republican) details the astronomical increase in "oral sex" especially. What's the hard, right, even the President did it?

I think this is the unfortunate and lasting legacy from Clinton. Sad indeed. I could keep going, but there's a word limit here at WaPo comments. I think you can at least get the gist. We are not talking about which one was the best President for the whole of the country. But, if Nixon doesn't deserve the POLITICAL Hall of Fame, then either does Clinton.

Posted by: JakeD | July 6, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse


You are confusing greatest "political" with "President" -- I will be right back with my critique of Clinton as President -- also, I am registered Independent, not a Republican at all.

Posted by: JakeD | July 6, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Although... hang on. Perhaps I am being unfair to JakeD.

JD- exactly HOW is Clinton worse than Nixon? I'd like to see this opinion explained, as I cannot imagine any combination of facts or evidence that would substantiate it. Do you have a rationale for why you feel this way?

I look forward to hearing your argument on behalf of your earlier statement.

Posted by: dbitt | July 6, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse


I've never stated ANY equivalence between the two situations -- Clinton is much worse -- is that clear enough for YOU?

Posted by: JakeD
Oh, you poor sad Republican.
Clinton was worse? Lying about his sex life is worse than betraying the oath of office, suborning perjury, targeting political enemies with criminal intrusion and so much more?
You are beyond deluded, JakeD. You are dysfunctional.

Posted by: dbitt | July 6, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Overall, even I have to admit that President Clinton is the greatest living politician today, despite his obvious flaws. Richard Nixon, however, is the greatest politician of the 20th Century.

Posted by: JakeD
Even from JakeD, this is laughable.

Nixon was hardly the greatest politician of the 20th century. He'd have to stand in line behind FDR, at the very least. And... hey, if you're a Republican, wouldn't you think Reagan would come before Nixon?

Nixon was influential (as I suggested in an earlier post) and deserving of inclusion, but he was hardly the greatest of our time.

Posted by: dbitt | July 6, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse


I've never stated ANY equivalence between the two situations -- Clinton is much worse -- is that clear enough for YOU?

Posted by: JakeD | July 6, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Addressing Chris' post:
Nixon should be in the Hall of Fame. He is inarguably one of the most consequential presidents in US history, for both good and bad reasons. Opening up China was something nobody else might have achieved; ending the Vietnam War, even as poorly as it was done, was an accomplishment Johnson didn't quite manage.
If anything, Nixon is also the strongest cautionary tale of our current age (though Bush 43 could easily overtake him there, in time). Arrogance, paranoia, abuse of power and an obsession with secrecy all converged in a perfect storm of government at its very, very worst (again, until recently).
I'd say that he ought to be there, warts and all, because... he's Nixon!

Posted by: dbitt | July 6, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Bill Clinton lied under oath and was impeached. Nixon didn't and wasn't.

Posted by: JakeD
Given that Clinton lied about a purely personal matter, his impeachment was widely seen as nothing more than a political attack--not an attempt to uphold the honor and dignity of the Oval Office. The aftermath of that sham was strong proof that the American public saw through the Republican attack machine, since Clinton was acquited and left office with high approval ratings (66%, the highest of any president post-WWII).

As for Nixon, his crimes were entirely political and struck at the core of his Constitutional responsibilities. The President is the chief law enforcement executive and here Nixon was, breaking the law and ordering others to do so. He didn't lie under oath because Ford pardoned him before a trial could be convened; he quit when it became obvious that impeachment was going to happen and that he would be kicked out of office.

Don't spout off about some ridiculous equivalence between the two situations, JakeD. We all know that there's no real comparison between the two, except in the feverish imaginations of Republicans who want to clean up their guy (Nixon) and smear the other guy (Clinton).

Is that clear enough for you?

Posted by: dbitt | July 6, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I will add to every post against RMN these two points:

His AG, John Mitchell, also a crook, monitored the telephone conversations of attorneys appearing in federal court on a regular basis. When Mitchell was the guest speaker at the ABA national convention in SA, TX, I attended with a local district judge. Mitchell opened by addressing our fears and saying "Civil liberties in America are safe as long as I am AG." In the silence, the judge I drove down with, Terry Jacks of Hays County, said loud enough for several to hear:
"The SOB is resigning."

Cheney and Rummy learned their trade under RMN and believed in the unbridled presidency - or "unitary executive". RMN came back to haunt us.
BG had to carry the news to RMN that he was toast and had shamed the office, the party, and the USA.

You were not there, CC. It was awful.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | July 5, 2009 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Watergate was only the final (or nearly final) act of Nixon's immorality. We can begin with the unfounded attacks on Jerry Voorhis in the 1948 campaigns, Nixon's association with Red-baiting (Joe McCarthy, anyone), and the slush fund that prompted the "Checkers" speech. During the 1960 campaign, when Pres. Eisenhower was asked to name a policy that Nixon had accomplished as Vice-President, Eisenhower said that, if given a week, he might think of one.

If not for George Wallace, it is unclear that Nixon would have been elected in 1968 (he may well have done so, but it not certain). His Southern strategy was one that intentionally dived the nation racially; his baiting of student war protesters demonstrated a disdain for those who disagreed with him, and his contention, as revealed to David Frost, that if the President does it, "it is not illegal" all show that Nixon just didn't get the idea that the United States is a government of laws, not of men. Hall of Fame, my eye.

Posted by: thephd | July 5, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

"Bill Clinton lied under oath and was impeached. Nixon didn't and wasn't."

Bill Clinton lied about his secual practices which, while certainly a political sin that he should have to account for, didn't even constitute a crime under the federal perjury statute. nixon, on the other hand, abused the powers of the office to rig a Presidential Election. Most people still miss this, saying it was all about the cover-up or a third rate burglary, but really Watergate uncovered the tip of the iceberg of the broader scandal - the infiltration of GOP politics to all aspects of the executive branch, which were illegally being used to spy on political adversaries for the purpose of their political destruction, ensuring no serious competition for Richard Nixon in the 1972 campaign. His crimes were so heinous that he was forced resign after Republican senators approached him to inform him that they had less than ten votes on his side in the Senate and he was facing certain conviction. This affront to the constitution, democracy, and the Republic certainly trumps opening up China (the cost of which also must me mentioned, the final abandonment, right or wrong, of South Vietnam - Kissenger's "decent interval"). He was a true politician in the worst sense of the word and does not deserve the makeover that too many modern historians are willing to give him.

Posted by: kreuz_missile | July 4, 2009 8:08 AM | Report abuse

good ideas ktunnel

Posted by: xdarkstealx | July 4, 2009 7:22 AM | Report abuse

If we compare Nixon's sins to those of Clinton, they are not the same, but sufficient to ban them both, from the Hall of Fame.
Watergate was an excess of power by the legislative branch, represented by Nixon, and Monicagate, was a sex scandal, very common ocurrence in everybodies lives.

Posted by: josenigrin | July 4, 2009 5:09 AM | Report abuse

"none of Nixon's political failings overwhelm his political accomplishments"

Like that political accomplishment of being the only president ever forced to resign his office? To me, that is the acme of political failure. There is no other political failure that even competes.

Which political accomplishment overwhelms that?

Posted by: nodebris | July 4, 2009 3:26 AM | Report abuse

He was a criminal who thought the executive power was more important than the legislative branch and that the executive was beyond the law.

In fact, like Cheney, he thought the executive was sufficient unto itself, regardless of either the legislative or judicial branches. Which is essentially the definition of monarchy and dictatorship.

Plus, he was a failed politician who badly damaged his own party.

There's your case against Nixon.

Posted by: nodebris | July 4, 2009 2:52 AM | Report abuse

"overall, however, none of Nixon's political failings overwhelm his political accomplishments"

I think that's a close question. His impressive (though singular) electoral victories versus a purely political (in that it wasn't some failed policy initiative like Iraq, an affair like Monica, or a business scandal like Tea Pot Dome) scandal that made him synonymous with corruption and crippled his party even in the face of a no-name peanut farmer? I dunno, it's a tough call. But what isn't a tough call is that Watergate had far greater political consequences than the Lewinsky scandal, so it's quite logical for someone to find the former disqualifying while not the latter.

"If the criteria is for a POLITICAL hall of fame, should the mere fact that he got embroiled in a scandal for purely POLITICAL reasons, be a point in his favor not against."

Eh, I dunno- doesn't EFFECTIVENESS have some weight? I mean, yes, it WAS purely political- and thus, it shows is single-minded obsession with the game- but it was handled very poorly, and had huge, tangible political detriments for Nixon and his party. I mean, feel free to expand on this point a little, but right now it kinda sounds analogous to saying that since I really love baseball and play in baseball games, I should be in the Baseball HoF.

"Nixon didn't and wasn't."

Well, first of all, "Nixon wasn't impeached" is fairly meaningless; he was going to be impeached, the articles had passed the House Committee, the Senate was already whipping fot votes, and Republican Leaders found themselves lacking even enough to protect Nixon from removal. The only reason Congress didn't go through with it is that he removed himself, so there was no need. Except for the fact that the Senate actually HAD the votes to remove Nixon, there's a distinction without a difference between he and Clinton in this regard.

As for perjury, he and Haldermann DID plan to have the CIA lie to FBI investigators, and most of Nixon's senior staff- including Haldermann and Erlichman, Nixon's closest aides- were convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice (With Nixon named as an unindicted co-conspirator). Given the control Nixon had over his staff, and the symbiotic relationship he had with Haldermann and Erlichman, it's pretty ludicrous to say they were going behind his back.

I don't know if any of that is dispositive of anything, but the facts are clearly more complicated than your statement.

Posted by: colby1983 | July 3, 2009 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Bill Clinton lied under oath and was impeached. Nixon didn't and wasn't.

Posted by: JakeD | July 3, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse


I don't know what you mean by "Monicagate". Which of Bill Clinton's actions would make it comparable to you with Watergate?

Posted by: Kili | July 3, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse


Again, you have masterfully stated the case--this time against Nixon.

I can only add that perhaps there WAS some basis to Nixon's paranoia that made him think 'they' were out to get him.

Firstly, he was an extremely gifted and shrewd politician, but he was not all that likeable, nor was he good-looking or telegenic. That sounds terribly superficial, but given that the media was becoming more and more TV-oriented by 1960, it was a handicap. And like so many unloved people, Nixon was clearly very thin-skinned and easily hurt by rejection, whether on an individual or a mass scale.

Secondly, Nixon was one of the first politicians of his era to come from a working-class background. Nowadays, we tend to be distrustful of 2nd or 3rd generation politicians (viz., GW Bush or Al Gore), fearing nepotism, but in the 50s and 60s, it WAS the establishment.

This not only made him feel like the perpetual underdog, he actually WAS the perpetual underdog. In a sense, one might almost say that his sanctioning of the break-in at the Watergate was a sort of 'acting out' against all those who had rejected him.

That will be $200.00 and please change the paper cover on the headrest of my analyst's couch on the way out. ;-)

Posted by: sverigegrabb | July 3, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Eh, after some reflection, I retract the Pete Rose comparison. RMN was a much better at politics than Pete Rose ever was at baseball. Rose's lifetime OPS+ was only 118 and his lifetime BA (.303) isn't even in the top 100 all time.

Posted by: mnteng | July 3, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

If the criteria is for a POLITICAL hall of fame, should the mere fact that he got embroiled in a scandal for purely POLITICAL reasons, be a point in his favor not against.

Maybe if it were an ETHICS hall of fame or a LAW-ABIDERS half of fame, Watergate might have a different weight.

The fact remains, regardless of his personal quirks, Nixon was a deft politician who left an indelible mark on the mid-century.

Posted by: ecp5 | July 3, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

I never said "ignore" Watergate -- overall, however, none of Nixon's political failings overwhelm his political accomplishments -- similarly, I would argue the same should apply to the Baseball Hall of Fame re: Pete Rose and Mark McGwire.

Posted by: JakeD | July 3, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

""Watergate" is all you've got?! Then Bill Clinton shouldn't have been inducted because of Monicagate!"

Not really. The political consequences of Watergate stretched far further, and cut much deeper. Clinton left office quite popular, but Nixon explored the basement of approval ratings. In the 1974 election, Nixon's party took heavy congressional losses (even after starting from a weakened position), and weren't able to rebound in 1976. In 1998, however, Clinton's party held the line (Even picking up a couple seats in the House) and made major gains in 2000.

We can argue about which "Sin" was greater, or if they were equal, but in terms of political consequences- the relevant framework for the PHoF- Watergate was much more important. I'm not sure if it should disqualify Nixon, but it was an epic political blunder, all stemming from him and his personality- so it can't be ignored.

Posted by: colby1983 | July 3, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

CC writes:
"... problems that should keep him out of the Hall of Fame."

It sounds like CC's mind is made up already.

I disagree that RMN is not PHoF material, unless you stipulate that having to resign the Presidency because of Watergate is a deal-breaker, akin to betting on baseball or steroids use. Which would make RMN the Pete Rose or Mark McGwire of the political world.

Posted by: mnteng | July 3, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

If this is going to be the new standard, why wasn't Bill Clinton excluded from the Fix Political Hall of Fame for his striking willingness to stretch (and break) the law???

Posted by: JakeD | July 3, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

"Watergate" is all you've got?! Then Bill Clinton shouldn't have been inducted because of Monicagate! I mean really, no one is perfect -- I was expecting a detailed analysis of each and every political failure, which is what should keep someone out of the POLITICAL Hall of Fame -- one botched break-in and cover-up doesn't do it.

Overall, even I have to admit that President Clinton is the greatest living politician today, despite his obvious flaws. Richard Nixon, however, is the greatest politician of the 20th Century.

Posted by: JakeD | July 3, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

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