The Real Legacy of Richard Nixon

Historian Rick Perlstein discusses the astonishing experience of listening to President Nixon’s every move on the Oval Office tapes and how his resignation forever changed America.

Hank Walker

On August 9, 1974—40 years ago this week—Richard Nixon stepped down as president of the United States in the wake of the Watergate scandal and, in the process, gave America a much-needed reality check.

Everyone makes mistakes. Even countries—our country—makes mistakes.

“America was beginning to think what it would mean to see itself as one more nation among other nations and one in which the same rules apply,” says Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. “And I think that was a healthy thing.”

In his new book, historian Rick Perlstein examines an America transformed by Watergate, and not entirely for the worse. In The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein tells the history of Watergate and years immediately after as an identity crisis between Nixon’s fallible America and Ronald Reagan’s mythic shining city on a hill.

In his two previous books, Perlstein marked the rise of the Republican Party from Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964 (Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus) through Richard Nixon’s soaring first term (Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America). After The Invisible Bridge, which covers the period from 1972 to 1976, Perlstein will conclude the series with a final volume on Reagan’s election in 1980.

Perlstein, who does a pretty good Nixon impression, spoke recently with The Daily Beast about the many rises and falls of Nixon’s reputation since Watergate and why we might have been better off if Gerald Ford had never pardoned him for Watergate crimes.

Why did you focus more on the perceived Nixon than the behind-the-scenes Nixon?

I have a very specific method in all of the books but especially in this one. If you look in Nixonland, there’s a line in the preface where I say this book is not about Richard Nixon, that it’s about the voter who voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 because it seemed to court civilizational chaos to do anything different, and the same voters in 1972 who voted for Richard Nixon for the very same reasons.

I’m always very sensitive to what was the historical record that was available to the ordinary citizen, and you’ll notice that—for the most part—I don’t peel back the curtain to describe what was going on in the White House or in the back rooms and corridors of power. [Bob] Woodward’s recent books are the best example of that.

For that reason, I’m not writing about what happens in the Oval Office very much with the exception of a very important part of the book where I use a tape from April 11, 1973—I remember that very specifically—in which Nixon has a very awkward conversation about a Vietnam Missing in Action named Roger Shields. But in my last book, Nixonland, it was absolutely crucial, and I did a lot of listening to the tapes—like in April 1971 how [Nixon] planned for a speech on Vietnam, then gave the speech, then reacted to the speech.

Did you pick up any good bits from the Nixon tapes?

There’s a funny part where [Nixon] talks about going to China—and this is absolutely one of my favorite things I ever found, one of my favorite historical finds ever—when he and Kissinger are talking about how the liberals are not going to give him credit for going to China. “It’s not my bag,” Richard Nixon says. He’s using kind of stoner slang. And hearing how loud he would scream and overpower the microphone.

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When it comes to the Nixon tapes, if any one of us had tapes of what we did every waking hour of our workday, it’s just an astonishing thing to behold. It’s so massive. Hearing Richard Nixon have a very tough meeting with Henry Kissinger talking about grave issues of state or talking to [H.R.] Haldeman about who they’re going to screw, and then hearing him usher a group of ladies into the White House and giving them little tchotchkes and pens and mugs. Hearing him shift in tonal register is a historian’s dream. The idea that you can open the door of a time machine, step inside, look at the past in a raw and unvarnished way, and then step outside and comment on it is a dream come true.

How do you evaluate the historical value against what the tapes wrought—the coarsening and cynicism of politics?

That’s not really my argument, that [the tapes] contributed to the cynicism of politics. I think the entire process of the Watergate investigation of 1973 and 1974 was actually a very redemptive one for the republic. The underlying argument of my new book, Invisible Bridge, is that something very special and rare was happening in the early ’70s because of Watergate, because of Vietnam, and going forward to 1975 because of what the Church Committee was up to, and the economic crisis brought on by the oil shortage, that America for the first time was beginning to reexamine its self-conception and really becoming a mature nation.

I quote Immanuel Kant in my preface, defining enlightenment as mankind coming out of its self-imposed immaturity. To me that’s what was happening. America was beginning to think what it would mean to see itself as one more nation among other nations and one in which the same rules apply. And I think that was a healthy thing. Hearing people in the Oval Office on tape sounding like mafioso—which is exactly what Richard Nixon sounds like when he says, “I can get a million dollars,” and John Dean says, “We’re not mafioso.” And you saw this wave of reformist, redemptive energy. And my argument is that what Ronald Reagan represented was giving Americans permission to abandon that hard but powerfully useful work.

Considering Nixon's impact on foreign policy, domestic policy, the Republican Party, etc., which of those strains have you seen moving in a particular direction the last 25 years?

The impact that I’m most fascinated with is the impact on the generation and regeneration of reform energy that waxes and wanes. Whenever people recall Watergate or say a scandal reminds us of Watergate, it’s the American people saying, “Let’s not let this happen again.” To me, the Nixon legacy that we grapple with every day is Ford’s legacy—that he pardoned Nixon and never made him answer for his crimes.

We see the Nixon legacy every time Reagan pardons people who were convicted of crimes related to Iran-Contra—like pardoning Caspar Weinberger. We see it every time the bankers responsible for the financial crisis don’t see any jail time. We see it when any elite is able to get away with a malevolent act because elites protect each other. To me, that’s the legacy of the Nixon-Ford era—the short-circuiting of justice in the ’73-’74-’75 period.

Historians say it takes 30, 40, 50 years to make an assessment of a president—partly to see how the things they put in motion worked out and partly to see the historical record develop to the point where you have a full set of cards to play. Do you think those are the two main factors in assessing a president?

No. Because of the tapes and the extraordinary nature of the records that the Nixon administration produced—and how the National Records Act came out of that—I think we’re in a pretty decent position to assess Nixon right away. And also because of the radical nature of his crimes.

But it was decades before we had all the tapes.

That’s true, but I’m not sure anyone’s making new discoveries because of those tapes. They’re more refining the old ones. John Dean, when he did the book on [former Chief Justice William] Rehnquist, a lot of that was carving out a political portrait of Nixon’s cynicism in picking out a Supreme Court justice. The Blood Telegram [by Gary J. Bass], the book that recently came out about Nixon’s complicity in the genocide in Bangladesh, I’m sure uses new evidence. But anyone who has followed the bombing of Cambodia knew [Nixon] was willing to absorb enormous amounts of carnage around the world to achieve what he saw as his geo-strategic ends. I’m not sure there was anything particularly new there.

Has the historical assessment of Nixon changed very much in the last 25 years?

Oh, it has. There’s a book, Nixon's Shadow [by David Greenberg], which is basically a history of Nixon’s reputation. There was a period in the ’80s and ’90s when Nixon was rehabilitated, or rehabilitated himself I should say. Elizabeth Drew writes about that in the preface of her republished book about Nixon. He rehabilitated himself as a great statesman. I think the pendulum has swung back on that because of books like The Blood Telegram.

There was a period in which Nixon was considered the liberal president, which I think is a terrible misinterpretation because presidents work according to political contexts that they do not create but have to respond to. The context that Nixon had to respond to was a Congress that was nearly 2-to-1 Democratic. One of the things I stress in an early chapter of Nixonland was that if you look at the actual first budget he produced, he was trying to do what Reagan would try to do. He was trying to undo the Great Society, and he basically said that in his memoir. He wasn’t able to do that because his second term was very much taken with another project.

Historian Douglas Brinkley says Nixon was the last New Deal president. You don’t agree with that?

No. He was the last president to work in a New Deal political context, which is a very different idea. If you look at what he actually said about what he wanted to do and what he was doing unconstrained by the imperatives of reelection was clearly not liberal. Look at the hiring of Howard Phillips to head the Office of Economic Opportunities. Basically, [Nixon] hired a new-right activist, one of the founders of the Young Americans for Freedom, in order to dismantle the War on Poverty. [The OEO administered anti-poverty programs.] And he got called on it. The media and the political culture was much more liberal than the one we have now.

When did Watergate stop hurting the Republican Party?

By the time [Nixon] died, he was defanged. At his funeral, President Clinton famously said that the time for judging Nixon for only one part of his career—Watergate—was over. I would say definitely by the mid-’90s, people were willing to hear the idea that he was some kind of foreign policy genius and Watergate was only a small part of his legacy.

Certainly he stopped hurting the party by ’84 at the latest. That was a Reagan landslide.

But that’s exactly one of the arguments of Invisible Bridge. What Reagan did was turn the nation’s attention away from Watergate, which I think was a bad thing because I think a process of reckoning was happening. A huge part of what I’m doing is demonstrating that Ronald Reagan was the one political figure in his time who consistently said to the press that Watergate doesn’t matter, doesn’t define the nation’s prospects. That made him uniquely popular to the broader public even though the public didn’t understand that at the time.

You put all of your source notes online, which I haven’t seen a lot of other historians do.

More and more, I rely on the newspapers that are available on Google’s historical newspapers. The reason for that is twofold: One is that these are what Richard Nixon would have called “Middle America” newspapers, the newspapers the vast majority of Americans read. They weren’t reading The New York Times and Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. They were reading the Lodi News-Sentinel and the Indianapolis Star and the Milwaukee Journal.

That allows you to get at what most people were reading, which was the wire service stuff, the AP and the UPI stuff. So in order to get a really accurate sense of how the ordinary citizen was absorbing what I’m writing about, I try to use those papers where possible.

The other reason I use those papers is that on my online source notes, the reader can link onto the actual articles I’m referring to. As those have become more available, I have used them more and more.

Why does that wider availability matter to you?

To me, writing history is a democratic process. You bring the reader in with a sense of transparency toward your sources as much as possible—the idea that people don’t have to go to a library to read source materials. The idea that the inquiry begins with the book but doesn’t end with the book is very important to me. The inspiration is the open software movement in the computer world, like Wikipedia, where the keys are available to anyone. I’m the boss, but wherever possible I have to get buy-in from readers and other scholars.

For example, sometimes a historian writing about the reaction and the shaping of the minds of ordinary Americans, whenever possible I watch and link to a YouTube version of a famous Richard Nixon speech or Gerald Ford speech or a film or a TV commercial or news reports.

The presidential libraries are starting to put more material online now.

The Ford Library has done a great job of putting key memos of the Ford administration online, and I read a lot of that. It’s not laziness, it’s not that I don’t like going to archives.

Well, that was going to be my question. Have you seen much of a digitization of things that historians care about?

Oh, yeah. The volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States, which are basically the official papers of the State Department, come out with new volumes every year. Basically, every important memo on the Vietnam War is available there online. The other thing that is very powerful is the Internet Archive, which has an enormous amount of government documents. There are PDF formats where you can turn the pages and plain-text formats where you can search the text.

In one of my chapters, I talked about a strike Ronald Reagan was involved in in 1947. And in 1948 there was a congressional investigation of that strike and the record is on the Internet Archive. And again, Internet Archive was created by people involved in the open software movement. There are issues of the magazine Photoplay, where I was able to find profiles of Ronald Reagan that I had seen cited in books.

Are you going to move forward in time and write about ’80 and ’84?

I’m just going to write one more book that will go up to 1980, and then this particular series will be done.

This interview has been edited and condensed.