When the 37th president of the United States shook hands with the 36th commander in chief, who was the tallest president since Abraham Lincoln and the crudest man to have been president since Andrew Jackson; when the newly inaugurated Republican shook hands with, in his estimation, one of the three greatest politicians of the 20th century, who was also the first Democrat to sign legislation worthy of inclusion alongside the Emancipation Proclamation; when Richard Nixon shook hands with Lyndon Baines Johnson, a half-century ago, it marked not only the passage of power but the rise to power of the greatest survivor in politics.
The handshake marked President Nixon’s attempt to avoid stalemate—and avert shame—in favor of peace with honor. That his opponents did not stop with his resignation from power, that they continued to wage war against his successor, who was a man of unimpeachable honor, while they refused to further arm our ally—all this led to the worst retreat in the history of American foreign policy. The images still haunt us: of a stairway not to heaven but an escape-way from the communist hell of Heaven on Earth in which civilians sought to flee the deluge, in which women and children drowned at sea, in which a downpour of Reds turned the streets into a river of blood.
Such was the consequence of a vocal minority against the president of the silent majority.
Such was the response to the decency of Nixon’s inaugural address, where he spoke not to the world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, but to the people of the United States; where he spoke not of a grand and global alliance but of the greatness of simple trappings; where he spoke not to let the word go forth but to lessen our suffering from a fever of words; where he spoke not to lecture us but to encourage us to learn from one another; where he spoke not of shouting but of speaking quietly enough for others to hear our words as well as our voices.
But the voice of the media, of three TV networks speaking as one, sounded like what Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew said it was: the presiding judge in a national trial by jury. The voice differed neither in the soundness of its comments nor the sound of its commentary, as its tone made the subjective sure, the doubtful definite, the assertive authoritative. Its tone governed the tenor of the times—and the voice of the New York Times—with its own High Church traditions. The sound matched its look, of an elite but unquestioned arbiter of truth.
The look was more imperious than impartial. It was a combination of gray and blue, with accents of red and white, suffused with a swirl of cigarette smoke. It was the look of supremacy—it was the image of infallibility—before 70 million nightly viewers who could turn the channel but not change the sermon.
What the public heard was what they had been told since 1962: that Nixon’s public career was over.
What the public saw was what the Washington Post had printed since 1948: a cartoon of a bushy-browed, beady-eyed source of evil.
When he was not brewing potions and poisoning apples, he was covered in sewage and carrying buckets of tar. He was a subterranean creature—and therefore, probably subhuman too—who was as uncouth as he was unclean, who stained whatever he touched, who threatened America because he had exposed the un-American activities of a high priest of the U.S. establishment.
To have scaled the commanding heights so he could remove someone who had concealed his identity, whose true identity was loyalty to a cause that had killed millions—and would kill millions more—before the West transcended what it had once contained; to hate war because he had lived it, he knew what his enemies could not—and would never—admit; that the grandchildren of the East would live like Nixon’s children’s children: in freedom.
We would—and did—bury the god that failed.
History now beckons us to say that Richard Nixon mastered his moment, that he helped make the world safer for mankind.
He answered his summons to greatness.
Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images