History And President Obama's Oslo Imprimatur

    In President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech last Thursday, he cited President Nixon’s trip to China as an example of a bold and controversial action by a leader that furthered the cause of peace:

    In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable — and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies.  Pope John Paul’s engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa.  Ronald Reagan’s efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe.

    In his speech, the President named some of the men and women whose “vision, hard work, and persistence” led history to bestow on them the title of peacemaker:

    Henri Dunant*

    John Paul II

    Martin Luther King, Jr.*

    Mohandas Gandhi

    John F. Kennedy

    Nelson Mandela*

    George C. Marshall*

    Richard Nixon

    Ronald Reagan

    Albert Schweitzer*

    Aung Sang Suu Kyi*

    Lech Walesa*

    Woodrow Wilson*

    *asterisks indicate Nobel Peace Prize laureates; Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, received the first Peace Prize in 1901.

    The President’s inclusion of RN amongst this noble company drew little attention and scant controversy.  Indeed, writing in Politico about the Oslo speech, Larry Sabato observed:

    Obama also smartly included Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in his parade-of-history salutes. Reagan properly receives some credit for the fall of Communism, but if any modern Republican deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, it was Nixon. Yes, Nixon-and this is written by someone who wasn’t exactly a Nixon fan during the Vietnam War and Watergate. But in the light of history, Nixon’s opening to China and his policy of détente with the U.S.S.R. made enormous contributions.

    In fact, President Obama’s inclusion of RN as one of these leaders, visionaries, and peacemakers may be seen as the thirty-seventh President’s passage from the exurbs of rehabilitation to the outskirts of apotheosis.

    There have been many turning points and milestones on the long and winding road from 9 August 1974 in Washington to 10 December 2009 in Oslo.

    In 1978, the publication of RN’s memoirs –RN— following on the broadcast of David Frost’s four 90-minute TV interviews, marked the return of the former President as an active presence on the American scene.

    The Frost interviews were broadcast in May 1977 and RN was published in the fall of 1978.

    In the summer of 1980 the Nixons moved to New York —“the fastest track in the world” as he called it— and the former President began enjoying a busy life as a best-selling author, adviser to politicians and presidents, globe-trotting traveler, committed sports fan, and doting grandfather.

    In 1984 CBS broadcast an hour of Nixon interviews on 60 Minutes, and in 1986 he appeared on the controversial and widely discussed Newsweek cover that announced: “HE’S BACK.”

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    In 1987 John Adams’ three act opera Nixon in China —commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Opera, and the Kennedy Center in Washington— was premiered to great acclaim.  Alice Goodman’s free-wheeling libretto took liberties with the characters’ psychologies, but the work rose above controversy and introduced the idea of RN’s life and career as subjects of rich dramatic significance and potential.

    Nixon in China is now considered one of the major operas of the 20th Century; it is also one of the few modern operas that has actually found a popular audience and continues to be presented in opera houses around the world.  The original Peter Sellars production will be revived in the 2010-2011 season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; and the work’s Canadian debut will coincide with this summer’s Olympics in Vancouver.  Another new production will be mounted in March 2010  — by the Long Beach Opera — just up the road from Yorba Linda.

    Cover art for Nonesuch’s 1990 complete recording of Nixon in China.  The 3-CD set became a surprise classical best-seller and is still in print.   This summer it was joined by a new complete live recording conducted by Marin Alsop.

    On 19 July 1990, the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace was opened in Yorba Linda.  President and Mrs. Bush and former Presidents Ford and Reagan and their First Ladies joined RN and PN and their family for the celebration.

    The Nixon Library Opens —  on 19 July 1990, RN and PN hosted several of their successors at the opening of the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

    In 1992 RN hosted President George H. W. Bush at a conference on “America’s Role in the Emerging World” presented by the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Washington.

    In January 1994, RN established the Nixon Center as a foreign policy think tank in Washington.  In March 1995, President Clinton was the guest of honor at a Nixon Center dinner at the Mayflower Hotel.  He spoke warmly and admiringly about President Nixon, who had died eleven months earlier.

    Indeed, President Clinton’s heartfelt and thoughtful eulogy, delivered on 27 April 1994 in the presence of his four living predecessors and their First Ladies at President Nixon’s funeral at the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, was one of the major turning points on the road from August 9th:

    27 April 1994: President Clinton eulogizes President Nixon during the funeral at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.

    President Nixon’s journey across the American landscapes mirrored that of his entire nation in this remarkable century. His life was bound up with the striving of our whole people, with our crises and our triumphs.

    When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past, and in foreign policy. He came to the Presidency at a time in our history when Americans were tempted to say we had had enough of the world. Instead, he knew we had to reach out to old friends and old enemies alike. He would not allow America to quit the world.

    Remarkably, he wrote nine of his ten books after he left the Presidency, working his way back into the arena he so loved by writing and thinking and engaging us in his dialogue. For the past year, even in the final weeks of his life, he gave me his wise counsel, especially with regard to Russia. One thing in particular left a profound impression on me. Though this man was in his ninth decade, he had an incredibly sharp and vigorous and rigorous mind. As a public man, he always seemed to believe the greatest sin was remaining passive in the face of challenges, and he never stopped living by that creed. He gave of himself with intelligence and energy and devotion to duty, and his entire country owes him a debt of gratitude for that service.

    Oh, yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are a part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times. He said many times that unless a person has a goal, a new mountain to climb, his spirit will die. Well, based on our last phone conversation and the letter he wrote me just a month ago, I can say that his spirit was very much alive to the very end.

    That is a great tribute to him, to his wonderful wife, Pat, to his children and to his grandchildren, whose love he so depended on and whose love he returned in full measure. Today is a day for his family, his friends, and his nation to remember President Nixon’s life in totality. To them, let us say: may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.

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    Every living former President and First Lady joined President and Mrs. Clinton at RN’s funeral in Yorba Linda.  Other eulogists included Henry Kissinger, Bob Dole, Pete Wilson, and Billy Graham.

    In the summer of 1995, Joan Hoff published Nixon Reconsidered.  A history professor at Indiana University and Co-Editor of the Journal of Women’s Studies, Hoff attempted to put RN’s presidency in an “historical rather than histrionic perspective.”   The book received widespread —and surprised— attention for its bold (and impressively researched) thesis that RN’s domestic contributions would be seen as even more important and enlightened than his widely admired foreign policy.  Professor Hoff wrote that RN:

    exceeded the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society in the areas of civil rights, social welfare spending, domestic and international economic restructuring, urban parks, government reorganization, land-use initiatives, revenue sharing, draft reform, pension reform, and spending for the arts and humanities.

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    Other books had played a part in preparing for a reconsideration of RN.  Stephen Ambrose’s three-volumes (1988-1992), and Jonathan Aitken’s 1993 biography supplemented RN.  And Tom Wicker’s One Of Us appeared just a few months before Professor Hoff’s bombshell.

    Throughout this period, RN himself was a prolific and best-selling author whose books were widely reviewed and discussed.  They included The Real War (1980), Leaders (1982), Real Peace (1984), No More Vietnams (1987), Victory Without War (1988), In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal (1990), Seize the Moment (1992), and the posthumously published Beyond Peace (1994).  He traveled widely and appeared strategically on op-ed pages.

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    After his 1978 memoirs RN, RN’s post-presidency best-selling books ranged from profiles of leaders he had known, to on-going analyses of American foreign policy, to personal essays.

    In 2006 playwright Peter Morgan turned the unlikely material of the David Frost interviews into a compelling and highly successful play.  Frost/Nixon, directed by Michael Grandage, and with Frank Langella as the former President, filled houses and won awards in London and New York.  A road company starring Stacy Keach as RN toured across America.

    In 2008 it was made into a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Oscar-nominated film directed by Ron Howard, with Frank Langella reprising his West End and Broadway role.  The Morgan-Grandage-Howard-Langella version introduced a new generation of worldwide play and moviegoers to the notion of a smart, witty, complex, and compelling Richard Nixon.

    It’s possible that President Obama’s thinking about his thirty-seventh predecessor has been influenced by the most recent milestone passed between ’74 and today — which came last August from a little-suspected source.  In his column in the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein wrote about Edward Kennedy, who had died three days before: “Asked about his greatest regret as a legislator, Ted Kennedy would usually cite his refusal to cut a deal with Richard Nixon on health care.”

    Writing in Newsweek , J. Lester Feder expounded on this idea:

    It must pain those fond of Senator Ted Kennedy that his death comes just when the current health-reform effort is threatened by the same kind of attacks that tanked previous efforts. In fact, the Obama health-reform package Kennedy supported in his last days is similar to one Kennedy helped defeat when proposed by President Richard Nixon. If anything, the Obama plan is more conservative. Nixon would have mandated that all employers offer coverage to their employees, while creating a subsidized government insurance program for all Americans that employer coverage did not reach. It would take a miracle to pass such a plan today—a public insurance plan and an employer mandate are two provisions of the proposals now in Congress that are most in doubt.

    RN had no illusions about the time it would take for history to be ready and able to assess him realistically and objectively.  In RN, he described the scene as he left the Oval Office after delivering his resignation speech on the night of 8 August 1974:

    Kissinger was waiting for me in the corridor.  He said, “Mr. President, after most of your major speeches in this office we have walked together back to your house.  I would be honored to walk with you again tonight.”

    As we walked past the dark Rose Garden, Kissinger’s voice was low and sad.  He said that he thought that historically this would rank as one of the great speeches and that history would judge me one of the great Presidents.  I turned to him and said, “that depends, Henry, on who writes the history.”  At the door of the Residence I thanked him and we parted.

    RN was aware that the process of historical rehabilitation is usually measured more in centuries than decades.  Privately, he thought that fifty years (the passage of two generations and their passions) would be the minimum amount of time required.  (The most recent example, David McCulloch’s Truman, had appeared twenty years after HST died and four decades after he left office with a 22% approval rating and mired by scandals.)

    Now, thanks to President Obama’s Oslo imprimatur, the timetable for reconsideration has been considerably moved forward.  It may even be that in 2010 —twenty years after RN’s Library opened and sixteen years after his death— it might be well begun; and, that by his 100th birthday in 2013, it might even be well under way.

    A Once and Future Slogan: a bumper strip from the 1972 campaign.

      Obama, Nixon, and Peace Through Strength

        President Obama mentioned RN in his Nobel acceptance speech.  Michael Goodwin of the New York Post perceptively notes what the president left out:

        “In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, [Richard] Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable — and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies,” Obama said. And later: “Ronald Reagan‘s efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe.”

        The examples are glib, but intriguing if Obama intends to practice what he preaches. Nixon and Reagan were able to engage the communist powers after first earning reputations as fierce anti-communists. Because they were committed Cold Warriors, they could make lasting peace.

        It is surely a hopeful sign Obama had the courage to cite Nixon and Reagan in Oslo and recognize their historic achievements. It would be infinitely better if he would follow their example and win the peace in our time through strength.

        Read more.

          Farewell to "Butterstick"

            One legacy of the Nixon Administration that has never ceased to enjoy widespread popularity in America is the tradition of “panda diplomacy,” in which the People’s Republic of China sends giant pandas to the National Zoo, to the delight of visitors of all ages.

            This saga began some weeks after President Nixon’s visit to the PRC in 1972, when Chinese leader Mao Zedong sent two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the National Zoo. They were the Zoo’s most popular attractions by far until they died in the 1990s, the two oldest pandas to survive in captivity. During their decades in Washington, efforts were made to breed them, but all the offspring died after a few days.

            In 2000, the PRC sent two pandas to replace them. Unlike Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, which were gifts to the United States, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are on loan to this country. For five years, the two new animals enjoyed an effective monopoly on American panda-mania.

            That changed in 2005, when the black-and-white couple welcomed a son. According to Chinese tradition pandas are not given names until they are 100 days old, so it was not until then that the youngster was christened Tai Shan. But a zoo worker’s remark that the animal, at birth, weighed about as much as an average stick of butter resulted in the nickname by which the panda is far better known.

            For the four years since his birth, “Butterstick” has effortlessly projected a charisma unequaled by any other Washington resident, including the current President, and each year on his birthday, thousands descend on the zoo to celebrate, lining up to wait for hours before opening time.

            But all good things must, sometime, come to an end, and Tai Shan is no exception. From his birth he belonged to the PRC, under the terms of the agreement which brought his parents to the Zoo, and that nation had the right to ask for his return. This month, the Chinese government asked for his return, and so “Butterstick” must leave the zoo before long, probably at the end of next month. But he’ll be long, long remembered by a city, and a nation, for whom he provided countless hours of fascination and joy. And as he leaves, he has the distinction of being part of a great tradition founded by the two leaders who shook hands in Beijing twenty-seven years ago.

              Nashua '68: What A Short Strange Trip It Was

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                The #1 Fan in the 1950s: Vice President Nixon tosses a ball around in his Capitol Office.

                Several recent TNN posts (here, here, and here) have presented RN as a serious football fan.  In fact, that puts the case mildly; he was the kind of enthusiast who puts the “fan” in “fanatic.”

                But, unlike many who mostly talk the talk, RN could really walk the walk — a fact discovered and recorded by no less an authority (and no less rabid a Nixon critic) than the uber-Gonzo journalist and Rolling Stone National Correspondent Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

                In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 —his bizarre and superb account of the 1972 presidential campaign— there are few moments more superbly bizarre than the limo ride with RN that he recalled and recounted from the eve of the New Hampshire primary during the 1968 presidential campaign.

                For Thompson, of course, this was, literally, a case of giving the devil his due.  But that makes his admiration all the more interesting and impressive.  And when Dr. Hunter S. Thompson describes something as “one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done,” attention really must be paid.

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                “Weird Memories of ’68: A Private Conversation with Richard Nixon” from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (pp. 58-61)

                It was a big yellow sedan with a civvy-clothes cop at the wheel.  Sitting next to the cop, up front, were two of Nixon’s top speechwriters: Ray Price and Pat Buchannan [sic].

                There were only two of us in back: just me and Richard Nixon, and we were talking football in a very serious way.  It was late —almost midnight then, too— and the cop was holding the beg Merc at exactly sixty-five as we hissed along the highway for more than an hour between some American Legion hall in a small town somewhere near Nashua where Nixon had just made a speech, to the airport up in Manchester where a Lear Jet was waiting to whisk the candidate and his brain-trust off to Key Biscayne for a Think Session.

                It was a very weird trip; probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done, and especially weird because both Nixon and I enjoyed it.  We had a good talk, and when we got to the airport, I stood around the Lear Jet with Dick and the others, chatting in a very relaxed way about how successful his swing through New Hampshire had been…and as he climbed into the plane it seemed only natural to thank him for the ride and shake hands….

                But suddenly I was seized from behind and jerked away from the plane.  Good God, I thought as I reeled backwards, Here We Go … “Watch out!” somebody was shouting.  “Get the cigarette!”  A hand lashed out of the darkness to snatch the cigarette out of my mouth, then other hands kept me from falling and I recognized the voice of Nick Ruwe, Nixon’s chief advance man for New Hampshire, saying, “God damnit, Hunter, you almost blew up the plane!”

                I shrugged.  He was right.  I’d been leaning over the fuel tank with a burning butt in my mouth.  Nixon smiled and reached out to shake hands again, while Ruwe muttered darkly and the others stared down at the asphalt.

                The plane took off and I rode back to the Holiday Inn with Nick Ruwe.  We laughed about the cigarette scare, but he was still brooding.  “What worries me,” he said, “is that nobody else noticed it.  Christ, those guys get paid to protect the boss….”

                “Very bad show,” I said, “especially when you remember that I did about three king-size Marlboros while we were standing there.  Hell, I was flicking the butts away, lighting new ones …. You people are lucky I’m a sane, responsible journalist; otherwise I might have hurled my flaming Zippo into the fuel tank.”

                “Not you,” he said.  “egomaniacs don’t do that kind of thing.”  He smiled.  “You wouldn’t do anything you couldn’t live to write about, would you?”

                “You’re probably right, I said.  “Kamikaze is not my style.  I much prefer subtleties, the low-key approach — because I am, after all, a professional.”

                “We know.  That’s why you’re along.”

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                The #1 Fan in the 1960s: presidential candidate Nixon, just a few months after his late night New Hampshire encounter with Hunter Thompson, was at the LA Coliseum (with campaign manager John Mitchell) attending a preseason game between the Rams and the Chiefs.

                Actually the reason was very different: I was the only one in the press corps that evening who claimed to be as seriously addicted to pro football as Nixon himself.  I was also the only out-front openly hostile Peace Freak; the only one wearing old Levis and a ski jacket, the only one (no, there was one other) who’d smoked grass on Nixon’s big Greyhound press bus, and certainly the only one who habitually referred to the candidate as “the Dingbat.”

                So I still had to credit the bastard for having the balls to choose me — out of the fifteen or twenty straight/heavy press types who’d been pleading for two or three weeks for even a five-minute interview— as the one who should share the back seat with him on this Final Ride through New Hampshire.

                But there was, of course, a catch.  I had to agree to talk about nothing except football.  “We want the Boss to relax,” Ray Price told me, “but he can’t relax if you start yelling about Vietnam, race riots or drugs.  He wants to ride with somebody who can talk football.”  He cast a baleful eye at the dozen or so reporters waiting to board the press bus, then shook his head sadly.  “I checked around,” he said. “But the others are hopeless — so I guess you’re it.”

                “Wonderful,” I said.  “Let’s do it.”

                We had a fine time.  I enjoyed it — which put me a bit off balance, because I’d figured Nixon didn’t know any more about football than he did about ending the war in Vietnam.  He had made a lot of allusions to things like “end runs” and “power sweeps” on the stump but it never occurred to me that he actually knew anything more about football than he knew about the Grateful Dead.

                But I was wrong.  Whatever else might be said about Nixon —and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human— he is a goddamn stone fanatic on every fact of pro football.  At one point in our conversation, when I was feeling a bit pressed for leverage, I mentioned a down & out pass —in the waning moments of the 1967 Super Bowl mismatch between Green Bay and Oakland — to an obscure, second-string Oakland receiver named Bill Miller that had stuck in my mind because of its pinpoint style & precision.

                He hesitated for a moment, lost in thought, then he whacked me on the thigh & laughed: “That’s right, by God!  The Miami boy!”

                I was stunned.  He not only remembered the play, but he knew where Miller had played in college.

                Those who knew RN will know that that Miller call that so amazed Dr. Thompson actually bordered on being a no-brainer for RN, whose memory for games and players and statistics was as vivid as it was phenomenal.

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                The #1 Fan in the 1970s: President Nixon greets coach George Allen and his family in the Rose Garden after the Redskins won the NFC championship.

                  From Bat To Amos To….Richard?

                    Word came from Los Angeles this evening of the death yesterday of actor Gene Barry at the age of 90. Barry’s career was a very long one – he made his Broadway debut in 1942 – and highly varied. In 1944, he performed opposite Mae West in her show Catherine Was Great. A decade later, he was starring in what probably still is, despite the best efforts of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, the most loved film adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War Of The Worlds. By the end of the 1950s he was starring as the dapper Bat Masterson on television, and a few years after that was a hit as the wealthy policeman Amos Burke on Burke’s Law. Another popular series, The Name Of The Game, followed.

                    The next decade proved rather more low-key, as Barry shuttled between TV guest spots and that vanished institution which is an even more cherished memory of the 1970s than pet rocks or Pong, the dinner-theater circuit. Then, in 1983, he came back to Broadway for the first time in 21 years as Georges, the gay nightclub owner in the blockbuster musical La Cage Aux Folles, a role which earned him a Tony nomination and ultimately helped win him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

                    But it came as quite a surprise, reading Barry’s obituaries this evening, to find out that the previous year, he had starred in a show that seemed destined for Broadway but (according to this interview with the actor) opened and closed in Atlanta in July 1982, proving so expensive to produce in its three-week run that plans to bring it to New York were set aside.

                    The show was co-written by Tommy Oliver and Edward J. Lakso, and its title was simple yet quite descriptive – Watergate: The Musical – with Gene Barry starring as Richard Nixon. His wife, Betty Clair Barry, played Pat Nixon. Ed Herlihy, the instantly recognizable narrator of countless ’40s and ’50s newsreels, played Sen. Sam Ervin.

                    I imagine many readers of TNN are trying to visualize TV’s Bat Masterson trading in his embroidered vest for a dark blue suit and wingtips, so here’s a photo of Barry as RN – before the offer to play Georges came and he went back to his finery.

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