Richard Nixon had a great fondness for music, was an accomplished pianist, and played the clarinet, saxophone, accordian and violin. He never learned to read music, but in 1961 Nixon composed “Piano Concerto #1” and performed his composition on The Jack Paar Program during a pivotal interview from 1963. Before sitting down to the piano, the politician (who had just been defeated in the 1962 California gubernatorial race) took a jab at Presidential piano player, Harry S. Truman, with, “Believe me, the Republicans don’t want another piano player in the White House.” And here’s a funny coincidence: as with other famous Nixon tapes, there’s a gap. The sound is missing from the last 44 seconds of this video.
Presidential libraries are not popular tourist attractions, but they are intriguing places to review the history of the men (so far) who have shaped America. There are 14 of them across the United States, and, as is the case with the Nixon Library, they are often sited next to the president’s birthplace, home or final resting place. Most visitors are commonly drawn to the libraries of those politicians whom they have admired, but as a true test of history it is sometimes more interesting to visit the museums and libraries dedicated to complicated, controversial figures, even someone who was once widely regarded as “the worst President ever.” The introductory film at the Nixon Library immediately dives into the illegal activities and personality flaws of its namesake. It does not shrink from Watergate and its cover up, the Vietnam War, or Nixon’s hubris, Shakespearean subterfuge and cunning, petty paranoic manipulations, and flat-out lying. But the museum and library go on to remind us of Nixon’s advancements in school desegregation and at NASA, his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the end to the Vietnam War, and the diplomatic advancements he made in U.S.-China relations with his groundbreaking trip to the country in 1972, followed by his travels to the Soviet Union later that year.
Giving the current state of the Presidency, Steven and I went to the Library to learn from history by revisiting Watergate and a man we both loathed. With an entire room dedicated to a detailed timeline of the event, the machinations that led up to it, and its aftermath, the review was more complicated than we had remembered and still shocking. As I stood before a description of the actual break-in, an older gentleman next to me turned to his companion and said with an angry snicker, “What a damn shame — this was a big bunch of nothing. And it sure is nothing compared to what Clinton did.” He turned to give me a challenging look, but I didn’t ask which Clinton did what. I wasn’t ready to rumble.
In 1974 President Nixon resigned his second term in office in disgrace, at a place so low no one thought he could ever recover. Yet 43 years later, some believe history has pardoned him following the lead of President Ford. I’m not convinced of that, but I do think he has passed on the mantle of “worst President ever.” For all of his flaws, Richard M. Nixon was a driven, intelligent man who spent his life in service to his country. And, though in the end he found he had no recourse but to resign, he struggled to right himself. In his own words, “Failure is not falling down, it is falling down and failing to get up to continue life’s race.”