Nixon still inspires a mixed bag of political views

Updated: 2014-08-12 07:15

By Chris Davis(China Daily USA)

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The Economist ran a headline this week: "Nixon's Legacy: They still love him in China". The editorial was pegged to the 4oth anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation from the White House, ending one of the most scandalous presidential administrations in US history.

While adult America had "spent its political life making up its mind, one way or another about Richard Nixon," the editors wrote, many might be surprised to know "just how respected and admired Mr Nixon is in China, and just how warmly he is remembered as the man who opened the door to renormalized relations between China and America".

Nixon still inspires a mixed bag of political views

As Luke Nichter, a Nixon expert and professor at Texas A&M University and co-author with Douglas Brinkley of the newly released The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, put it, with the passage of time, every former president sees their legacy re-examined and recast, and Nixon may be no different.

"Watergate's never going to go away," Nichter said. "Nixon's role in that and the cover-up is so well-documented. But I think what we're trying to say here, 40 years later, is Nixon doesn't have to be all bad or all good. He can be a combination of the good, bad and ugly."

"Nixon may be the most influential American President of this Century because of one single action: Nixon opened China to the West," wrote a blogger named Connect The Dots. "And the peaceful rise of China and economic predominance may be the big story of the 21th Century — no different that Britain nurturing the rise of the United States in the 20th Century."

Indeed, according to a CNN/ORC International poll timed to coincide with the anniversary, 40 percent of Americans — including more than half of people under the age of 35 — think the Watergate scandal was just dirty-trick political horseplay and name-calling like we've all come to expect, in other words: business as usual.

In the US, as the poll suggests, there is a big generational divide over the scandal — a majority of respondents over 40 described Watergate as a very serious problem, and those under 40 saying it was just politics.

Ask anyone under 30 what Watergate is, another blogger quipped: they think it is some kind of "leaky plumbing valve".

An interesting choice of words, given that the secret group of clandestine operatives being run out of the White House was code-named the Plumbers, their job being to stop leaks of classified information to the press — information like the Pentagon Papers, which verified that the White House had systematically lied to not only the American people but also Congress about the Vietnam War.

The Plumbers' first big job was to break into the office of the psychiatrist who had been treating the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers — Daniel Ellsberg — to try and find information to discredit him.

Their big job, of course, was breaking into Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972, when five men were caught. The investigations that followed uncovered widespread abuse of power by the White House — including using the FBI, CIA and IRS to harass political enemies — and led to Nixon's resignation and the conviction and imprisonment of 43 people, many of them Nixon administration officials.

According to the Economist, Nixon admirers in China are aware of Watergate, but their view is that it was "an odd footnote rather than the final word on Mr Nixon's legacy". They are more focused on the iconic photo taken in Beijing in 1972 of a smiling Nixon shaking hands with a grinning Chairman Mao.

One legacy is sure, the use of the word "gate" as a suffix to any term handily turns it into a scandal, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's Bridgegate and Xinhua's recently dubbing the recent food-safety crisis in China "Stinking Meat Gate".

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