Complicated Legacy

As Whittier College’s highest profile graduate, as a college trustee, and as a college friend, Richard Nixon shaped both the physical appearance of the campus and the school’s national reputation.

Candidate Nixon returned to Whittier for campaign events and, when running for national office, received a hometown welcome as a favorite son.

candidate             Nixon Family Photos


From among the many famous fiends that Nixon accumulated as senator, vice president, and president, the college pursued celebrity speakers and recipients for honorary degrees.  Nixon & Bob Hope at a college event (above).

paulsmith Dr. Paul Smith, Nixon mentor & college president

Under President Paul Smith, one of the professors that Nixon considered a mentor, Whittier doubled enrollments.

“During my 45 years in the political arena, no one inspired and influenced me more than Dr. Paul Smith,” Nixon wrote. “He was the best of scores of teachers I had in high school, college and law school.”

New buildings transformed the appearance of the campus during Smith’s tenure in the 1950s and 1960s. As a friend of Smith, trustee of the college, and ambitious politician, Nixon seemed eager to appear when the college dedicated or broke ground for new buildings.

Nixon also donated a collection of travel memorabilia, including gifts from heads of state, that the college now displays in the Nixon Room of the Wardman Library. Scholars, artists, business and government leaders, appointed to the temporary position of  “Nixon Chair,” visited campus to lecture and teach. Political cartoonist Paul Conrad, a persistent Nixon critic, enjoyed the irony when the college asked him to be a “Nixon Chair.”

images-2 Paul Conrad & some of his Nixon cartoons

images images-1

More recently, the college initiated a Nixon Fellowship Program to prepare exceptional students for “informed citizenship and service through internships, scholarships, and research opportunities that echo Nixon’s legacy in domestic and foreign policy.” The students named Nixon Fellows “develop leadership skills, increase international understanding, and experience the rewards inherent in a career dedicated to the public good.”

That’s the positive side of the Nixon association with the college.

With apologies to the bard and Henry IV’s soliloquy, “Uneasy lies the head (and the college) that wears a crown,” there is a second side to the Nixon legacy. Just as Whittier College’s national reputation reached its apex, Nixon resigned the presidency. When spectacular controversy overtook Whittier’s famous graduate, it spilled over onto the college. Campaign practices that attacked opponents like Helen Gahagan Douglas (dubbed the Pink Lady by senate candidate Nixon). Vietnam. Watergate. Watergate coverup. Watergate hearings. They each roiled Whittier like most other US campuses, only more personally.

Just before the Ohio National Guard opened fire on protesters on the campus of Kent State in 1970, Whittier president Fred Binder urged nonviolence. “There is no such thing as a just or unjust war,” he said, “all wars are stupid, mean and immoral. As rational beings, raise your voices in protest if you must, but raise your hand against no man or you defeat the very purpose of your concern.”




In 1971, Jane Fonda captured the cover of Life magazine (below) and her visit to Whittier (left, see the lower right corner of the photo) spoke to student unrest.


Jane Fonda at Whittier 1971

During protests on the Whittier campus, some asked the college trustees to reconsider the honorary degree that they had bestowed on Nixon in 1954.

surprise-logoYou may think you know about Vietnam and Watergate, but what do you know about the Pink Lady. For one summary of the Nixon/Douglas campaign, click on Nixon/Douglas Senate Campaign.

Hear Eleanor Roosevelt offer her opinion on Nixon’s senate campaign against Douglas. Click on Eleanor Roosevelt.

Outside politics, Richard Nixon’s legacy is more secure in several areas of domestic policy and, most significantly, in international relations with China.

surprise-logoThink you know how Republican politicians feel about the environment?  Listen to Nixon speak about environmental protection. Click on Nixon & the Environment.

And what about expenditures on ambitious nationally-funded initiatives like space exploration? Listen to Nixon talk to Neil Armstrong on the moon. Click on Nixon’s phone call to the moon.

Nixon hoped that a summary of his legacy would read, “Nixon went to China.”

Listen to Nixon reach across the geographical and ideological divides. Click on Nixon’s toast.

In reality, Nixon’s presidency ended more tragically, tainted by a constitutional crisis triggered by Watergate and symbolized by a signature, defiant wave before leaving the White House on a final flight into presidential history. No “Checkers” redux speech could again salvage his reputation as the original had rescued his candidacy for vice president in 1952. Instead of 1962, when Nixon lost the election for governor of CA and bitterly told the media “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more,” Nixon’s political career actually ended at an open helicopter door on August 9, 1974, and an iconic Nixon raised arms salute.


Nixon’s goodbye, August 9, 1974


Paul Conrad says goodbye to Nixon’s presidency


White House staff photographer Oliver Atkins captured the final moments of the Nixons at the White House from this unique perspective–through the helicopter’s open door.

 Those who are interested in the “Checkers” speech can click on  Nixon on offense to see part 1.  Nixon made the dog Checkers famous on tape 2. Click on The dog stays.

To hear Nixon tell the press that they won’t have him to “kick around,” click on It hurts to lose.

In the decades since August 9, 1974, scholars as well as the next generation of political leaders continued to explore Nixon’s legacy and debate his complicated life story.

Listen to William Safire describe Nixon as a “layer cake.” Click on Nixon’s layers.  Once a speechwriter for Nixon, Safire had his own complicated relationship with his former boss.

Nixon and President Bill Clinton established a warm relationship, and Clinton turned to Nixon for advice on foreign relations. Clinton offered a eulogy at Nixon’s funeral. Click on Clinton on Nixon.

Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (1964) had a very different view of Nixon, referring to him as “the most dishonest individual I have ever met in my life.”

Among the many intellectual conflicts that complicate any assessment of Nixon, the president’s attitudes on gender is emblematic.  Consider what he said privately with what he promoted publicly as policy.

Candidate Nixon supported the Equal Rights Amendment and as president directed each cabinet and agency head to develop an action plan to hire and promote women. He created a Presidential Task Force on Women’s Rights and asked the Justice Department to bring sex discrimination suits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. He ordered the Labor Department to add sex discrimination provisions to the guidelines for its Office of Federal Contract Compliance and signed the Education Amendments Act that included Title IX banning gender discrimination in education.

For a positive, insider’s view of the Nixon Administration, click on Barbara Hackman Franklin 

Or click on Memorandum: Women in Government to read the president’s memorandum on hiring women in government.

But also think about the campaign he waged against Helen Gahagan Douglas, “the Pink Lady,” for the Senate. And how do you reconcile words and actions?  According to Wikiquote, Nixon said the following:

  • I’m not for women, frankly, in any job. I don’t want any of them around. Thank God we don’t have any in the Cabinet.
    • As quoted in The Rehnquist Choice (2001) by John Dean; also in “Double Dipping at the Waffle House” by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate (11 October 2001).   
  • I don’t think a woman should be in any government job whatever. I mean, I really don’t. The reason why I do is mainly because they are erratic. And emotional.
    • Conversation with John Mitchell “Double Dipping at the Waffle House” by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate (11 October 2001).

A search of other topics–Israel and the role of Jews in American society–reveal similar contradictions. In fact, Nixon’s relationship with Golda Meir conflates both gender and religion/race.



During an interview with Frank Gannon (Nixon-Gannon tapes), Nixon discussed his view on women political leaders:

“The difficulty is that when a man does meet with a woman, he’s at a disadvantage. Let me give you one example to prove it. In my meetings with Golda Meir, she would come in to see me, and I remember so well that she — the first time we met, we posed for the photographers and so forth, and she was all smiling and graceful and so forth, and as soon as they left the room, she crossed her legs, lit a cigarette, and said, “Now, how about those planes that you’ve promised and that we haven’t gotten?” It was all business. The thing I liked about Golda was she was very tough and she was very feminine when you got to know her. But she acted like a man, and she wanted to be treated like one. She didn’t act like a man and want to be treated like a woman.”

“But when Mrs. Gandhi came in, she was very smooth and very silken, et cetera, et cetera. She was just as tough as Golda Meir, but while she acted like a man, she wanted to be treated like a — by a — like a woman, and it was very — put — whoever was dealing with her at a disadvantage. So, in other words, let me just say this. I — I think it’s very important that women have every opportunity to go to the top in any field, and particularly in politics, but I would strongly urge that those who really want to succeed should give no quarter and ask for no quarter because they happen to be women. I think men, however, are always going to treat them as women, and that’s the way it should be.”


In a private conversation with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon reportedly said, “We really slobbered over the old witch.”  Kissinger later (2005) offered an apology and his context for the quote. “This was not a formal conversation. This was somebody letting off steam at the end of a meeting in which both President Nixon and I were emphasizing that we had gone out of our way to treat Mrs. Gandhi very cordially. There was disappointment at the results of the meeting. The language was Nixon language.”

At Whittier, the college website claims “a long academic tradition–grounded in the Quaker quest for knowledge and personal growth [and] an appreciation for the complexities of the modern world and workplace . . . never losing sight of the importance of social responsibility.”

Is there a better human subject for the pursuit of that tradition, a man with a more conflicted life, than Richard Nixon?

For a select Nixon bibliography compiled by the Library of Congress, click on Read, and decide, for yourself.