Nixon's Lessons Learned by Nation's Schoolchildren

By Jamie Stiehm

August 8, 2014 5 min read

As a Wisconsin girl, I knew Richard M. Nixon would be served for dinner with the tuna fish casserole. My mother would say Nixon would never end the Vietnam War, raging in 1968. The anti-war movement was rising and Nixon was a growing dark streak on my world. The historian Douglas Brinkley, 53, nailed him as "diabolical."

Nixon was running for president. I was 6 going on 7 and kept up with the University Houses campaign talk. The grown-ups wept when two leaders who opposed the war, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, were slain that spring. I wept, not understanding why. Still standing, Nixon prevailed at the end of a year that made the stones speak.

As president, Nixon cast a spell on the nation's children long before we could vote, drink, drive or get drafted. His insidious influence lives on. I believe he chilled our civic participation and faith in politics.

In the years to come, my generation of American schoolchildren learned lessons from Nixon that culminated in the Watergate scandal. Barack Obama was a child then, too, so it's worth noting how our worldview was shaped by Nixon's presidency and his historic resignation. The first thing we lost was our innocence.

Fury over the Vietnam War kept escalating, which Nixon did nothing to quell. When student blood was shed on an Ohio campus, he could not comfort. Even to children, he was painfully awkward in the face of anguish or worse, polarizing. He had a way of making people ever madder.

Straight-ahead were free tickets to the Watergate follies, starting with the break-in to burglarize the national Democratic Party offices. While it took the grown-ups years to prove the president was involved, it was plain as day to me and my friends. It became inescapable, with hearings on the radio and television every time you turned them on — a nice soundtrack to grow up by.

The sad thing is that by the time we were 10 or 12, we knew the president and his men would lie, cheat and steal. Once the Oval Office tapes were released, we knew they could swear real good, too.

Nothing about Nixon was a nice surprise. From his rough talk, his mean spirit spoke volumes that did not need to be spelled out. How this guy got to be president, nobody could say. Who could invent such a man? Nixon truly was a character out of Dickens or Shakespeare, but we had not cracked those books yet.

Nixon never made things "perfectly clear." When he said he wasn't a crook, let's just say he was not a reliable narrator. He never earned our constituency's trust. When he resigned, we became the first generation of children to see that happen in American democracy. It shook us. It was a disillusioning, chilling August day for all ages in 1974. A boy named Barack had just turned 13.

After witnessing a president's downfall, my peers never embraced politics as we aged into adults. My generation is somewhat cautious about public causes. We had no reason to believe the political system produced good results. We are not "joiners." Nobody told us to ask what we could do for our country. So as we pursued happiness, we defined it more privately than most generations. Many of our best minds went to law school. Obama was one. Sure, we were swept up in his historic election, but the thrill did not last long.

Forty years ago, my mother watched Nixon speak to the nation and resign in the White House. In a rare moment of truth, he said that if you hate others, then you destroy yourself. We lived in California, just a two-hour drive to San Clemente, where he would fly once airborne. A professor who probably made the enemies list, she had to be there to witness him land. When Nixon appeared on the airfield, she said, nobody cheered, nobody jeered. Silence greeted the disgraced former president.

Democracy survived Nixon's deeds. But we'll never know the cost of what we lost.

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