President Nixon and the kitchen-table debates

Richard M. Nixon
Richard M. Nixon

Today would have been the 100th birthday of Richard M. Nixon, 37th president of the United States

This news has been widely reported, so I’m sure you already know. But his death offers an opportunity to share the obituary Hunter S. Thompson wrote for The Atlantic when Nixon died in 1994 at age 81:

It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and now that he’s gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Nixon was politically alive — and he was, all the way to the end — we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

That was Nixon’s style — and if you forgot, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don’t fight fair, bubba. That’s why God made dachshunds.

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson

Thompson, noted for writing Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 67. And he most likely had at least as many detractors as Nixon had.

It wasn’t until later in life that I became familiar with Thompson and his gonzo journalism.

But my some of my earliest memories of politics involve Nixon. My mom and dad were 29 and 33, respectively, on June 17, 1972, when the Watergate burglars broke into the Democratic party headquarters. It’s safe to say my parents were not Nixon fans, especially Mom, who had grown up in Lucas, Iowa, the home of famed labor organizer John L. Lewis, who died in 1969 at age 89.

Nixon won re-election on Nov. 7, 1972, defeating Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota in a landslide. This was four days after my sixth birthday, so it would have been nearly impossible for my parents’ feelings about Nixon to have not left an impression. And searing it into my memory was the fact that my paternal grandparents, whose farmhouse was a few hundred feet from the house in which I grew up, were Nixon people. This undoubtedly added to the tension that was probably already beginning to develop even then between my parents and paternal grandparents — later straining to a point that would take far too long to detail today. You’ll have to read the book if I ever get around to writing it.

Anyway, I can remember my grandpa reading the Des Moines Register at our house, the adults talking about the Watergate scandal and my parents — later, after my grandparents had gone home — wondering how anyone could support Nixon … especially in the days surrounding his resignation in 1974. I don’t know if either of my parents ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate prior to Nixon, but I’d be very surprised to learn they had in the past 39 years. And I don’t suppose my family is unique in how it may have been shaped by Nixon.

His death is worth remembering here if only so that it might help make sure someone like him is never again elected to be president of the United States. And it’s a good reminder that if the United States could survive the damage Nixon wrought, it can survive any of the challenges it faces today.

4 thoughts on “President Nixon and the kitchen-table debates

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