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Richard Nixon shall live in infamy
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Richard Nixon no longer walks among us, having departed this earth a full two decades ago. But the ghost of the enigmatic figure who 40 years ago this week resigned the presidency lingers among us, and he is a curious character indeed.
Awkward in manner -- but shrewd in judgment. Flawed in character -- but peerless in vision. Much misunderstood -- but possessed of a peerless understanding of human nature. Tarred with mendacity -- but a political magus nonetheless.
How soon we forget, and how smoothed by the years are the edges of a man Harry Truman once described as a "no-good, lying bastard," a base scoundrel who, the 33rd president said, "can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in."
This is not one of those cases where the truth is right there in the middle. Richard Nixon deserves to live on in opprobrium, for high political crimes and misdemeanors.
The presence of the word "high" in Article 2, Section 4, of the Constitution -- describing the basis for impeachment, which Nixon avoided only by resigning in disgrace -- was not meant as synonym for "serious." It meant crimes conducted by officials in "high" positions, an implicit indication that the nation's founders expected top officeholders to hew to higher standards than those common in others.
In that case, and in that case only, the Framers agreed with Nixon that the president was above the law.
For all those crimes -- regarding the presidency as a perch to conduct a political range war, confusing the values of national security with the virtues of domestic life, besmirching the reputations of his rivals and on some occasions conducting clandestine operations against them -- Nixon's most enduring legacy is not what laws he broke but what customs of civic comportment he shattered.
Nixon's defenders speak of his far-sighted policies, but in truth he only made the inevitable imminent. Someone else eventually would have recognized Red China, another president likely would have reached out to Soviet Russia. But only Nixon poisoned our civic life with a cynicism that remains an American contaminant.
Indeed, in the entire arc of American history -- slavery, civil war, a Depression, two worldwide military conflicts, countless smaller ones -- the word "amoral" appears more often in the American conversation in the Nixon years than in any other time of our national life.
If we are a nation of cynics, Nixon stands indicted for making us that way. Thomas Jefferson said, "Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom." Nixon lived by an abridged version of that book.
His recent predecessors (Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy come to mind) and his successors (Ronald Reagan and probably Bill Clinton, too) spruced up the American presidency. Richard Nixon tore away the greenery. For that, never forgive him.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).