In the bleak days after he became the only U.S. President to be driven from office, Richard Nixon, his reputation in ruins, found comfort in a friend’s homespun wisdom: “Whether you have been knocked down, or are on the ropes, always remember that life is 99 rounds.” Nixon later recalled thinking, “Well, I still have a few rounds to go.” Last week the final bell rang as the former President, dead of a stroke at 81, was buried at the Nixon Library in “Yorba Linda, Calif. The ceremony was attended by 2,000 guests, including President Clinton and former Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush. “He gave of himself with intelligence and dedication to duty, and for that his nation owes him its gratitude,” said Clinton. By his life’s end, the Watergrate-tainted Nixon had transformed himself into a statesmanlike figure welcomed in capitals all over the world, including, finally, his own.
“The secret of Nixon’s durability,” wrote historian Garry Wills in 1969, “resides in his willingness to sacrifice former selves to the self of the moment.” Thus the crusading anti-Communist of the ’50s became the first President to reach out to China; the paranoid, vindictive figure of Watergate became an eminence of matchless experience.
Ambitious but painfully awkward socially, Nixon grew up poor in Yorba Linda as the second of five sons of Francis Nixon, a lemon farmer, and Hannah Milhous, a pious Quaker. He turned down a Harvard scholarship to attend nearby Whittier College and help out at home, occasionally working as a carnival barker. After earning a law degree at Duke, Nixon returned home and courted Patricia Ryan, a schoolteacher who failed at first to return his enthusiasm. Doggedly, Nixon would drive Pat on her dates with other young men, until finally he wore down her resistance.
In the Navy during World War II, Nixon built up a $10,000 nest egg skinning fellow officers at stud poker. He used the money to finance his successful first race for Congress, against incumbent Democrat Jerry Voorhis, whom Nixon falsely tarred as a Communist sympathizer. In 1950 he used the same tactic to defeat Democratic senatorial candidate Helen Gahagan Douglas. Ultimately his posturing helped bring him the GOP nomination as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952.
After narrowly losing the 1960 presidential race to John F. Kennedy, then failing to win the 1962 California governor’s race, Nixon was declared politically dead. Yet he managed a stunning comeback in 1968 by repackaging himself as the New Nixon and promising to end the Vietnam War. Five years later he did so, but only at the expense of 27,000 more American lives.
Nixon in his later years largely abandoned his trademark gut-fighter’s partisanship to cultivate an image as a sage and adviser. He published his memoirs and eight books on global affairs and pursued détente on the personal level as well, making peace with such old rivals as George McGovern, whom he had defeated in the bitter 1972 presidential race. Over the years, McGovern saw his former foe change for the better. “I think he became a more authentic, open, liberated person after he left politics,” says McGovern. “As a person, he was more humane, a better man the day he died than when he was in the White House.”