THE CAMPAIGN pamphlet from his 1946 election to Congress said it best: “Richard M. Nixon is One of Us.”
"What is best and weakest in America," wrote the scholar Garry Wills, "goes out in reciprocating strength and deficiencies in Richard Nixon."
He was raised in the California outback, the son of a thick and brutal grocer and a severe, often-absent mother. He would lie in bed listening to the train whistles, dreaming of escape. His childhood was marked by privation and the death of two beloved brothers. It left him awkward, sad, shy and peculiar.
He was spurned as a young man by Eastern elites and churned with resentment. He responded like a beaten dog, flinching from real and imagined cuffs. Nixon was "badly, badly hurt" as a child, said his friend Bryce Harlow. "He went up the walls of life with his claws."
As he made his way from the House to the Senate, and then as vice president and president, Nixon emerged as a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare—an Iago to his own Othello, his worthy deeds undermined by gnawing insecurities.
We live in a world he made. The 1972 opening to China set history on a new, liberating course. It was the great tear in the Iron Curtain; a bell tolling for the Soviet Union, a step toward a new international order that would lift billions from want and give them, as he dreamed, a measure of peace.
At home, he embodied that great American virtue: pragmatism. His was the last progressive Republican presidency, with forward-thinking reforms for health care, poverty, civil rights and affirmative action, the treatment of American Indians and protection of the environment.
And yet, in part from self-recognition, Nixon saw the weaknesses of human character, and employed that insight to manipulate his countrymen. He persuaded Americans to chew, as he did, on grievances—and to look upon each other as enemies.
He helped launch the McCarthy era, drafted declarations of culture war, set South against North and black against white in his "southern strategy" and instructed his “great silent majority” to distrust its elect institutions.
And then, in the crucible of the presidency, in an era marked by the tumult of Vietnam, assassination and riot, and generational enmities, the insistent flaws in his character gave way. Nixon broke. Consumed by hatred, the president ordered up the illegal wiretaps, burglaries, assaults and the cover-up that ultimately sealed his fate.
In all of American history, one labors in vain for a moment to match that of Aug. 9, 1974—the tormented Nixon standing in the East Room, pouring out his guts in a plea for understanding; then climbing up the stairs of Army One, the last turn, the thrust of arms up into the air, his fingers forming the emblematic Vs.
His words, from that day, are well worth study now in this time of great polarization. "Always remember others may hate you," he said, "but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them and then you destroy yourself."