With the presidential election in November 2024 rapidly approaching, the coming months will present difficult choices for the electorate. August 9, the forty-ninth anniversary of Richard Nixon resigning the presidency, is a perfect time to remind ourselves what we need in a president.
Although his mother Hannah did not want a life of politics for him, Nixon had no regrets. He knew he could not sit on the sidelines, allowing the “crooks and crackpots” on the “political right and radical left” to dominate political action through bullying tactics. Rather, he believed “we need participation by the great majority,” which he felt he represented. To Nixon, a good candidate required five qualities: brains, heart, judgment, guts, and experience.
Nixon possessed these very qualities.
Throughout his life, Nixon was frank about his life in politics and why he engaged in public service. “I’m a politician” Nixon said. “I don’t believe that free government can survive unless every citizen is a politician…. I think being a politician is the most important obligation of any man who believes in freedom.”
Nixon believed, “Freedom takes thought and dedication. Freedom can’t live in a vacuum. It demands dedicated servants who love it and will work for it. It demands politicians. They are the servants of freedom.”
Nixon further believed that “what separates the men from the boys in politics is that the boys want office, they want to be president in order to be somebody. The men are people who want office in order to do something.”
With these beliefs, Nixon sought accomplishment, not adulation. He never sought to be loved as a leader. He sought to be respected.
Throughout Richard Nixon’s entire presidency, he never had a Republican House or Senate. Yet he effectively worked across the aisle to achieve significant policy achievements. President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, twice proposed national healthcare, ended the draft in favor of an all-volunteer military, ended the Vietnam War, was the first president to visit Moscow, signed the first nuclear arms limitation treaty, opened relations with China, and was re-elected in 1972 in one of the largest land slides in American history.
Then, less than two years into his second term, in the wake of Watergate, he resigned forty-nine years ago today on August 9, 1974. The Democrats in the majority in both houses of Congress marched in lockstep seeking to drive him from office. As Watergate dragged on, he also saw his support among many Republicans slipping away. Impeachment in the House of Representatives seemed inevitable, although conviction in a Senate trial was not a foregone conclusion. Nixon could have fought on. But he chose not to.
“In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation,” Nixon explained in the speech announcing his resignation. He believed that America could ill afford a weakened president embroiled in a fight for his political life. “To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad,” he continued.
He was, as he said more than a decade earlier, even after he had lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy, still a politician committed to “the most important obligation of any man who believes in freedom.” But in deciding to leave office, he was also a statesman. Forty-nine years ago, President Nixon resigned his office because he believed that the interests of the nation came first, ahead of his own ego and desire for vindication. As we look toward next year’s presidential election, America needs more politicians like Richard Nixon, leaders who put the national interest ahead of their own self-interest.