Don’t shake Nixon’s hand

There is picture of me shaking hands with President Nixon. I’m sixteen and in a skirt so short it should be illegal. He is looking right at the camera, with the frozen smile he made a hundred times that day as a selected slice of the citizenry of Kansas was paraded before him. I’m looking away. In spite of the honor of meeting a U.S. president, I already do not like this one and I will come to like him even less as we both grow older.

Richard Nixon, three days after resigning on 9 August 1974My parents could not have been more proud. Much to my embarrassment they hung the photo in the front hall of our house, leaving me to shrug and smile lamely whenever my own friends saw it. Then it got buried in a box for a few decades, and emerged here in my home a few months ago.

The decades make you more philosophical. This is a piece of my personal history, I thought.  I should embrace all the oddball steps along the path I’ve trod. So up went the photo, albeit in a far corner of a room upstairs.

Now, let me be clear. I think Nixon was a frequent liar, who tried to distance himself from a my-wining-justifies-any-behavior scandal called Watergate to which he had no moral objection. I know that he was foul-mouthed, rude and paranoid. This might describe a lot of politicians to some degree, it is true, but I think Nixon was on the far end of that spectrum and I don’t like him for it. I don’t think he was a nice or an honorable man.

Vietnam_WarWhat is worse, there is some evidence that he worked to derail the Vietnam peace talks in order to get elected in 1968. This would make him indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths and an uncountable amount of human suffering. Again, one might argue that many leaders could be accused of such. With great responsibility comes large consequences for poor decisions. But derailing peace talks to get elected? That has to be on the very low end of poor decision making.

Then, we get John Ehrlichman’s revelations from this past week. Nixon hated the hippie movement. In fact, it was his comments about such that turned me off so thoroughly the day the photo was taken. I don’t doubt that he was racist (and probably everything else -ist). The virtues of tolerance, diversity and inclusivity never appeared to be part of his make-up. He may or may not have specifically designed the war on drugs to target blacks and anti-establishment youth, but at the very least it was a bonus to him. This story has the ring of truth to it in that he was notably pragmatic as regarded his own political career. Not only did he not like either group, he also recognized how unlikely either was to ever vote for him.

IMG_2180So I look at the photo and consider taking it back down. These recent revelations stir up the anger and frustration I used to feel, and explain why a younger version of myself thought a man like Gerald Ford was a big improvement. It turns out that I wouldn’t dislike another president so vehemently until Ronald Reagan got elected. Mercifully, I don’t have a picture of me and Reagan to agonize over.

There is something to be said for keeping your own history, honoring your own memories and what those moments meant to you. There is also something to be said to for deciding “I have heard enough about this clown, I don’t ever want to see his face again.”

Which emotion trumps?  Oooopppps, bad word choice. My subconscious must be doing a little free association. Let me rephrase the question. Do I ban his image from my home? Or maybe I should just cut out the part of the photo containing Nixon, and leave my sixteen year-old-self shaking hands with an unseen apparition?

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