Nicholas Goldberg: What I Learned About Myself at the Richard M Nixon Museum

In the house I grew up in, President Nixon was evil. My parents voted against him every chance they got, and we all cheered when he resigned during his second term and rode in disgrace from the White House lawn to a life outside the public eye.

Being a criminal, a warmonger, a fanatic, a ferocious patriot, and a threat to the Constitution—these were indisputable facts.

For me, a recent visit to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda was a fascinating, mind-blowing experience that challenged my assumptions and forced me to test my long-standing puritanical views against a very different narrative.

Some people don’t like having their assumptions challenged. I decided to embrace her.

Opinion writer

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor-in-chief of the Op-Ed page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

I didn’t go to the museum because of this month’s historic anniversary. But for the record, January 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords that led Nixon to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam, and the 50th anniversary of the Watergate thieves trial before U.S. District Judge John Sirica.

Vietnam and Watergate were central to my political make-up. I was young in the Nixon years—only 16 when he resigned in 1974—but I marched against the war and followed the Watergate hearings on television, with appropriate disgust.

At the museum, I knew I was going to enter an alternate universe. One in which the same facts are presented but somehow seem different, the story is so skillfully transformed that you are surprised and have to scramble to find the truth. Like watching Fox News years later in front of MSNBC.

The Nixon presented by the museum is someone who needs to be judged “no less than his life and his entire career,” as President Clinton said at Nixon’s funeral in 1994. Nixon the museum is not innocent or blameless, yet the picture painted is fundamentally warm, admiring and tolerant.

This Nixon is complex, a man with a vision, a tragic hero whose flaws have fallen upon him.

I toured the exhibits, learning about his days in the Navy, and his courtship with his future wife, Pat. He honestly seemed human. But I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I played?

They were certainly right about Nixon’s successes: he made an extraordinary, historic visit to China in 1972 that laid the groundwork for the normalization of relations between the United States and that country more than 25 years later. It was so unexpected and transformative that it spawned a metaphor: “Nixon’s moment to China.”

Later that year, he met in Moscow with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, paving the way for arms control pacts and a new era of détente in the midst of the Cold War.

Remarkably, it was Nixon – a Republican – who created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Endangered Species Act. Occupational Safety and Health Administration signed into existence.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine today’s Republicans working across the aisle on such important projects.

Given today’s vitriolic and self-destructive politics, it’s hard not to be moved by his words at his first inauguration: “We can’t learn from each other until we stop yelling at each other.” God knows President Trump didn’t say anything with that much thought.

But each step I took through the museum was a process of confronting and testing my own beliefs and prejudices, and setting the facts as I understood them against those on display.

Yes, Nixon inherited the Vietnam War from his Democratic predecessors – and eventually ended it. But he also bombed urban areas, mined ports, and oversaw troop pushes across the border into Cambodia. It should not have taken five years to end the war.

Nixon was recorded on the famous White House tapes saying that Washington was “full of Jews,” “most Jews are disloyal,” and “you can’t trust bastards.” But if those museum recordings are mentioned, I’m missing out. Instead, in the gallery on the tapes, I was able to hear him congratulate the Pittsburgh Pirates on winning the World Series in 1971.

I can’t help but think of Nixon’s cheerleading role in the McCarthy era—a period of blacklisting and pledging oaths and name-calling and persecuting people for their political beliefs?

How about the cynical Republican “Southern Strategy” to win over white voters in the South by using coded language to play on racial concerns?

Finally, Watergate. In the lead-up to the 1972 campaign, Nixon’s friends robbed Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, and engaged in “dirty tricks” and campaign finance abuses. They’ve targeted political enemies, including arming the IRS against adversaries.

To the museum’s credit, it has a relatively comprehensive exhibit on that mind-boggling scandal and the president’s disgraced role in the cover-up.

In the end, I didn’t find my core beliefs upended or my worldview shattered. Nixon is still a villain in my mind. But I came away with a more nuanced view and a better understanding of how other people see the man differently. I could recognize his successes. And I was given the necessary reminder that people (even polarizing ones like Nixon) are rarely entirely good or bad.

Which brings me back to my main point, which is not to make a fight about Nixon’s failures and her virtues.

My point is that, for me at least, it is important to remain open to controversy, to challenge my own preconceptions and to listen to alternative viewpoints with an open mind. Sometimes it helps me believe in what I already believe. Sometimes it doesn’t. I usually enjoy it, but sometimes it’s frustrating.

But I’m sure of this: Only talking to people inside our bubbles, allowing ourselves to be governed by polarization, silos, demonization, confirmation bias – that’s intellectually lazy.

Hate Nixon by all means, if that’s where the facts lead you. Or not, if you think his accomplishments match his failures. But hear each other.


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