State of the u-phemism

February 10, 2020

The first actual presidential grave I’ve ever visited

When a potato sits too long in a pantry, it starts to grow sprouts. Fearing the same might happen to me on the couch, Carol prevailed upon me to make a road trip to Yorba Linda and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. The Library was celebrating the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s first State of the Union address in 1970. It was Tuesday, Feb. 4, and perhaps we might also be celebrating the current president’s last.

The simple house where a most complicated man had his beginning

The Library features a brief film chronicling the main events of the country’s 37th president.The film opens with a clip from Nixon’s resignation speech that followed the conclusion of his likely impeachment in 1974. I found that refreshingly honest, and it caused a slight boost in my respect for him, which had never been  a very high bar.

Much is made of Nixon’s service, especially of his naval career. Too much actually, because in Nixon’s case, service and ambition were inextricably tied. But it was his sense of service that no doubt informed domestic initiatives such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the EPA and OSHA that gave him the dubious distinction of being the most liberal president since FDR.

It’s never the crime, but the cover up that gets you (hopefully)

Aspiration and spectacle are other aspects of political leadership that can both drive and destroy a career. His aspiration to build international “structures of peace” with China (read up on the significance of “the handshake” with Chou En Lai that marked his China visit) and the Soviet Union that led to the first thawings of the Cold War were genuine and beneficial. It was the spectacle of his doomed attempt to cover up his involvement with the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation in disgrace.

The helicopter that whisked Nixon away in disgrace

If the roots of ambition and spectacle are service and aspiration respectively, much good can come, even if it all still ends badly. The country’s history proves it can survive, thrive and continue to move on. It’s when ambition and spectacle are not rooted in service and aspiration – when they are but disguised euphemisms for those noble roots – that history, world history anyway, tells us the wheels will come off the rails and the world is threatened.

The story of Richard Nixon as told at his library and museum in his birthplace of Yorba Linda (the house where he was born still stands near where he and wife Pat are buried on the grounds) is a cautionary tale, one that we fail to heed at our peril.

These are some of the thoughts that linger as you leave this most worthwhile visit. You’d like to think we’d never go down a path like this again until you realize that, yes, you’re right. It could actually be worse this time. It comes down to four terms, and whether they’re real distinctions or just euphemisms to cover darker aims. Who’s to say whether both Nixon and the current White House occupant would have been better off growing sprouts on a couch their whole lives? Put another way, what havoc could I have wrought had I tried to embrace “service” or possess genuine “aspiration?”

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