How Nixon Re-Shaped The Presidency

Today would be the 100th birthday of President Richard Nixon. From civil rights to Watergate, Nixon's term shaped the office of the presidency. NPR's Ken Rudin and Stanley Kutler, professor emeritus in history at the University of Wisconsin and author of Abuse of Power, talks about the legacy of the 37th president.



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee.

But it is a special day. On this day, 100 years ago, Richard Milhous Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California. He later became a U.S. representative, a senator, a vice president, and finally, 37th president of the United States. From civil rights to Watergate, Nixon's term shaped perceptions of the modern office of the presidency and creating quite a few memorable soundbites in the process.




NIXON: And I say, let's win this one for Ike.


NIXON: Because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.

I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.

HEADLEE: While President Nixon resigned from office under pressure following the Watergate scandal, there was much with his presidency than a break in on the sixth floor of D.C. hotel. So if Watergate is the first thing you think of when you hear Nixon's name, what's the second thing you remember about his legacy? Give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. The email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. It's and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stanley Kutler is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin, author of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes." He joins us now from Wisconsin Public Radio. Thanks for being with us.


HEADLEE: So do you think, Professor, it's unfair to connect Nixon primarily with the Watergate scandal?

KUTLER: Of course, it's unfair. I mean, you know, forget Watergate because at the end, it becomes really the determinative factor in evaluating him. But there's a lot more in Nixon. What I argue, as I did earlier today, is that Nixon is really the commanding influence on our lives some - almost 20 years since his death and almost 40 years since he resigned his presidency.

His administration is filled with landmarks and influences that, as I've said, are very much with us today, you know, legislative achievements and all kinds of things, like Title X - Title IX, I think it is, I'm sorry - prohibiting sex discrimination in any federally financed education programs. Well, that's what enables us to have as many female athletes as we have today. Title - that was Title IX.


KUTLER: Title X is the primary family planning program, which included money for breastfeeding, for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Of course, the irony here is that I cannot think in this past electoral season of one Republican candidate on the national level who did not attack these programs.

HEADLEE: Hmm. Interesting. And that's actually the point. Let's go real quickly here, Professor, to Brian(ph) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. What's - we asked if Watergate is the first thing you think of when I say Nixon, what's the second thing you think of? What's your answer, Brian?

BRIAN: Clean Water Act, the passage of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act were huge and...

HEADLEE: Well, of course, you'd think that in Michigan.

BRIAN: Well, of course, but I contend that he was probably our last liberal president that we've had.


HEADLEE: That's interesting. OK. Thanks so much, Brian. What do you - what's your answer to that, our last liberal president?

KUTLER: Well, I hear that all the time. By today's standards of the Republican Party, you may want to even call him a flaming red. But that's not the way to determine it.

I mean, this is about the environment. It's just fascinating because it - I think it reveals so much of the man. You know, the Environmental Protection Act passed in the first months of his presidency and he's often given credit for it. Well, that's silly. That thing had been winding its way through Congress for about six, seven years. Senator Gaylord Nelson was nurturing it. He's the founder of Earth Day. And some of the program was there for Nixon. Then, of course, came the Clean Water Act, as the listener said. And here's the irony, that Nixon proposed these things, yet in a way, he fought against them. But most importantly, if you listen to enough tapes, you'll find that one of the favorite pejoratives between Nixon and his chief of staff was to call somebody an environmentalist. He laughs at it.

HEADLEE: Well, let's go here to another call, and this is Michael in Boca Raton, Florida. Michael, I say Nixon. You think Watergate, and then you think...


HEADLEE: Of course.

KUTLER: (Unintelligible)

HEADLEE: That's a common - that's certainly what I think of next. Thank you very much, Michael. And then Darrel(ph) in Kansas City, Missouri. I say Nixon, and you say...

DARREL: Gold standard. He took us off the gold standard.

HEADLEE: Oh, interesting. Excellent. Took us off the gold standard. Professor?

KUTLER: Yeah. Well, that's - China, of course, is the obvious answer. There are certain qualifications to that. But this is about going off the gold standard. Closing the gold window, it was called in 1971. I'm uncertain of all the ramifications of that. But I do - I think we could say with certainty that we are still feeling the effects of that today.

HEADLEE: Going off the gold standard.

KUTLER: It's a different world. I mean, it probably was inevitable. But it's still something that is so much with us.

HEADLEE: Well, you know, there's many pieces of legislation that Nixon signed into law. The EPA was mentioned, ERA, Title IX, of course. But I have to ask you, professor - we're speaking with Stanley Kutler, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin. How many of these things would've survived in his second term had he not been derailed? Don't we know from his letters and papers that, in fact, signing these things was part of political strategy and not a heartfelt belief in policy?

KUTLER: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But, you know, it's interesting. You ask people about the second thing they think of. I said, obviously, China. But I would insert in there right after that is the so-called Southern strategy. Richard Nixon fulfilled every dream of political scientists from the preceding 40, 50 years who were calling for a realignment of American politics, by which they meant Southern Democrats should become Republicans and liberal, moderate Republicans of the South should become Democrats.

Well, it didn't exactly work out that way. But what worked out very clearly was, well, we had a solid South, by which we meant Southern Democratic states. The solid South is now solidly Republican, and that's primarily because of Nixon. He exploited that issue. He appealed to those people. I mean, he said - he promised them that he would go slow on desegregation policies. On the other hand, probably the most liberal achievement of his administration was the work they did in desegregation of Southern schools.

But as part of that Southern strategy was to try to change the Supreme Court. And Nixon had several attempts, but you better believe that his nomination of William Rehnquist is something that remains with us today. Rehnquist led to the court to an almost 180-degree turn on so many issues. And then irony of - not irony, proof of proofs. Who succeeds Rehnquist but John Roberts, who had been Rehnquist's clerk. So Nixon, when he appointed Rehnquist, he liked him. He said he's young. He'll - I'll be able to influence the court for 30, 40 years. Nixon underestimated the amount of time.

HEADLEE: And also with us - it's Wednesday, so, of course, our resident Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. You know, Ken, was Nixon the beginning of using the Supreme Court as a sort of political football?

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Well, you can make the case, of course, that FDR used it in 1938, campaigning against the court, wanted to extend the court. But, Professor Kutler, I mean, I know we're talking about - it's the 100th anniversary. And Richard Nixon, you know, my whole political memory is always - there's always been Richard Nixon. And we're talking about: What do you think of besides Watergate? But we can't not talk about Watergate. I mean, there are - we saw from the tapes, his views on blacks and Jews and the Constitution, and what he did to undermine the Constitution and the, you know, complete disregard of the laws, the use of the FBI. I can't help this, but we have to talk about that, as well.

KUTLER: Well, sure. Listen. The most memorable line in Richard Nixon's extensive interviews with David Frost was what he said - he said something about his enemies that - oh, no. No. He said that when the president does it, it is not illegal. What in the world could he have been thinking?


HEADLEE: He was thinking that when the president does it, it's not. I think that's what he was thinking. We're going to return with Stanley Kutler, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, talking about Nixon's legacy. But you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And we're back, talking about the legacy of Nixon. Remember, our question for you is: If you think of Watergate first when I mention Nixon's name, what's the second thing you think of? You can give us a call or email us. That's 800-989-8255.

RUDIN: And, professor, one other thing: I mean, another question we always have about Richard Nixon, I know he cared so much about history and his standing in history. But the question you have to ask is: What was he thinking? Why didn't he destroy the tapes?

KUTLER: Well, that's a complicated story. First of all, let's ask why he wanted the tapes. He wanted the tapes because he would then have his version of what really happened. And, you know, the tapes have to be used with caution. Some of those conversations are contrived conversations that Nixon was talking about something that he shouldn't have been talking about with several visitors, and then suddenly, one listener comes in who's not in the know, and Nixon hears about this news and he's appalled and so forth. Nixon always said if the tapes will exonerate me - oh, they would've if he could've released them, let them go selectively and destroyed the others. Well, he didn't. It's along - as I said, it's a long story as why he did not. But the tapes were his undoing, of course, at the time. And you know what? They're his undoing today because...

HEADLEE: Yeah, and that's the reason that most people still remember Watergate, is because we have that sound in our ear. But I wanted to get to some of the phone calls from listeners here. This is Bill in Iowa City, Iowa. Bill, Watergate first when I say Nixon, and then what do you think of?

BILL: Well, I was in Vietnam in '68. I'm a retired Marine when he came out with a secret plan to end the war. So I was very interested in it. What a lot of people don't know is it actually worked. In '72 and '73, the South Vietnamese, without any of our forces, defeated two major invasions. It wasn't until the Democrats got in '74 and totally cut off the funds that Vietnam was doomed. And what a lot of people don't remember is he was one of the first ones for universal health care to mandate.

HEADLEE: Yeah. That's another thing people don't remember. But they do remember lots of secret plans.

Again, we were speaking with Stanley Kutler, professor emeritus of history at the University of Nixon, author of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes." He joined us from Wisconsin Public Radio. And Ken Rudin, our resident Political Junkie, he joined us here in Studio 3A.

RUDIN: I am part of the long national nightmare, by the way, before he talks about health care.

HEADLEE: That won't end.

RUDIN: That's right.

KUTLER: Yeah, well...

HEADLEE: Thank you so much, professor.

KUTLER: OK. All right. Thank you.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular