I cut out this column from the Cleveland Plain Dealer after Nixon passed in 1994. Dick Feagler wrote it. His words resonates to this day. Read and enjoy.
Final exit for an obstinate man
Richard Nixon won’t be back this time
The fat lady has sung and this time there will be no encore. Four times in his life, the press pronounced Nixon dead. Once he even spoke at his own political funeral. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he told the media that loathed him. That was in 1962 when he lost his bid for Governor of his own, conservative home state. He thought he was finished. So did the reporters.
We were deep in Camelot. The Irishman in the White House had stolen the presidency from Nixon with a combination of money, charm and good looks. And help from the Chicago mob, which slipped in the fix as if democracy was a third-rate fight.
Nobody minded much. Even Ike was cool toward Nixon. Ike was a hero and everybody’s grandfather. He knew that Nixon was useful to have around to do the stuff that got your hands dirty. But during the campaign, when they asked what Nixon had done for America, grandpa requested a couple of days to think it over. It was one of the few things Ike ever said that got a laugh. A born straight man like Nixon brought out the comedian in everybody.
No wonder he was paranoid. He was a rare creature, an underdog without sympathy. The media kept trying to get rid of him like something you’d scrape off your shoe. He was a political shark who got to Congress by red-baiting and smear tactics. An early opponent called him “Tricky Dick.” It went into the language and stayed there.
He had the physical grace of a wind-up toy. When he shot both arms above his head to make little victory signs with his fingers, he seemed like a man who’d been jolted by a cattle prod. You figure it would keep a dozen seamstresses busy repairing the rips in the armpit of his suits. In triumph, he looked pained. In defeat he looked sullen. Kennedy in a back brace was more relaxed than Nixon in a golf shirt. He walked on the beach with his wingtips on.
He had the personality of a lousy blind date. His soul was a computer crammed with political software. He was as ambitious as a Borgia. He believed his enemies were out to get him, which was certainly true. He wrote their names down on a list and hatched bizarre plots against them. He had an inferiority complex and nobody to talk him out of it except the goons on his payroll. In the end, they showed him no loyalty. He cursed his luck and even swore off-key, like a man who has read bad words in a book and rehearsed them.
An assassin made him President. That was after he had gone down for the third time. The press played taps for him in ’52 after a scandal over a slush fund. He stayed on Ike’s ticket as vice president by delivering a mawkish, self-pitying speech on national TV. He whined his way into the White House and whined his way out of it.
He was next reported done for when the mob stole the election in 1960. He was listed KIA in ’62, and he thought so too. Then Kennedy was murdered and Johnson sank in the muck of Vietnam and pulled Hubert Humphrey down with him. Nixon campaigned in ’68 as the “New Nixon” on the accurate hunch that nobody would vote for the old one. The hunch was right, but it was false advertising.
He let people think he had a secret plan to end the war. In fact, he widened it. Twenty thousand more Americans were killed in Vietnam after he took office. He sat there while the war ran down. Then along came Watergate, which was nothing. Nothing. A man more human, a man less paranoid, a man who created a small reservoir of good will would have survived it. The plotters in Nixon’s camp would not take the fall for him. He had no cronies, only hit men.
Shakespeare wrote about men like Nixon. In the end, his tragic flaw did him in. One more maudlin speech. Then the most disgraced president in history stood in the door of the getaway helicopter, rendered a final spastic and astonishing victory sign and flew away. And that, finally, had to be the last of him.
And really it was, The media, which tried so hard to get rid of him, is pretending this week that he came to life once more as a revered and respected elder statesman who had mellowed into brotherhood with the rest of the species. But this media, which shamelessly guts and maims the living, can be counted on to speak glowingly and hypocritically of the dead. After it sees the death certificate.
I would rather see Nixon off without phony anthems of praise. To me he represented, from beginning to end, most of what is wrong with the American political process. I have read the glowing eulogies from men who despised him. Groping for things to say, they have lauded his ability to keep getting up from the canvas. And his long service to his country.
For service to country, nobody, in my book, can beat those 20,000 names on the Vietnam wall. He kept getting up from the canvas because he lacked ability to know when he was disgraced. Only drunks, buffoons and politicians count that as a virtue.
I do, though, feel sorry for him. I don’t think it’s an accident that he chose not to lie in state in Washington, D.C. He returned, instead to his home town. Where he was once a boy listening to a train whistle and dreaming of doing great things.
He did them. But I pity him because he never learned to take pleasure in small things. Because he was awkward and a born loser. Because his ambition became obsession. Because his own name should have topped his enemies list.
That’s true of a lot of us. Maybe most of us. But it was the central truth for Nixon. The boy, dreaming to the blue note of a train whistle, didn’t know that. Nixon has returned to the place where the dream was clean. And there he will finally find rest.