Kenneth Burns: Richard Nixon still a source of fascination

Jan. 13, 2013 @ 11:43 PM

I hope you commemorated Wednesday, Jan. 9, in an appropriate way.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide what appropriate means.

Jan. 9 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of the United States. The only president to resign the office, Nixon departed the White House on Aug. 9, 1974, brought down by the Watergate scandal that forcefully influences our politics to this day.

Nixon fascinates me. That’s been true since I was kid.

I have the same birthday as Richard Nixon. I was born on Jan. 9, 1971, and for as long as I can remember, I have been teased about sharing my day with Nixon. I also share my day with Crystal Gayle and Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean (he’s the one with the complicated facial hair), but I seldom get teased about that.

Nixon is one of my favorite reading topics. I count 19 books about him on my shelves, and I’ve read many more than that.

I started reading about him in fourth grade, when everyone had to write a report about a president. Some kids made choices based on personal connections. Kelli Taylor wrote about, naturally, Zachary Taylor.

I had my Jan. 9 connection, and I proudly told my teacher which president I would be covering. That was only about six years after Watergate. She looked uncomfortable.

I’ve read academic biographies of Nixon, and journalistic books like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s legendary “All the President’s Men.” I’ve read transcripts of the infamous White House tapes. I’ve read memoirs of Nixon administration figures like John Ehrlichman and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman.

I’ve watched numerous films about Nixon, from Oliver Stone’s creepy “Nixon” to the funny comedy “Dick.” The other day I started watching the famous television interviews the British broadcaster David Frost did with Nixon in 1977, and I ran into a problem I’ve encountered before.

I can’t keep the Nixon story straight.

All these books about Watergate later, I have trouble keeping track of who did what. When I read a passage like this one from Nixon’s 1978 memoir “R.N.,” I still get confused:

“Haldeman asked Colson about Dean’s disclosure that it had been Colson’s call to Magruder urging action on Hunt’s and Liddy’s intelligence-gathering plans that may have precipitated the Watergate break-in.”

One reason I get confused is that this story is truly complicated. Another, I suspect, is that Nixon and his men cultivated uncertainty and confusion about Watergate as the scandal developed. People are still trying to unravel the mystery.

Which brings to me why I’m mesmerized. I love a good mystery, and Watergate is one of the greatest. Why did White House operatives conduct the Watergate break-in? Why did Nixon cover it up? These questions lack definitive answers.

I love presidential history. I’ve read books about FDR and Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton, the Bushes.

But I keep coming back to Nixon. And it’s not just the 1970s scandal that’s mesmerizing. His whole life seems to offer clues to solving the Watergate puzzle. The Quaker upbringing. The Alger Hiss inquiry. The Checkers speech.

But when it comes to Nixon, certainty is elusive.

What is certain is that he was a deeply divisive figure who served as president during some of this country’s most troubled years. He left the presidency in disgrace, amid a scandal that prefigured White House scandals to come, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

He spent the rest of his life trying to rehabilitate his image, with some success. “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close,” said President Clinton at Nixon’s funeral in 1994.

Many people are still angry about Richard Nixon. I’m mainly just fascinated.

I also have certain traits in common with him. I tend to introversion. In dark moments, I can be brooding and secretive.

And I know how to use a tape recorder.

— Kenneth Burns is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 214 or e-mail to kburns@themountainpress.com.