Fifty years ago Sunday, Richard Nixon took the oath of office as our nation’s 37th president. Nixon is forever tainted in our public memory as a paranoid schemer and “unindicted co-conspirator” who was eventually driven from office by scandal. Yet Nixon was also a transformational president, who opened a door to China that continues to shape our world and signed landmark environmental legislation that Republicans today would never dream of.
On the anniversary of his famous presidency, we were curious what Nixon actually said in his inaugural address. We were stunned by what we found. The Washington Post described Nixon’s remarks as “solemn and restrained” and a plea for national reconciliation in turbulent times. Nixon’s speech apparently did not make much of an impression in 1969 and, in the annals of history, has not stood out as particularly memorable since. However, when we look back at his speech now, Nixon seems to speak quite eloquently to the present day.
It’s always dangerous to go back in history and try to apply contemporary standards to things that happened long ago. Still, some words do resonate across the generations. Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to “the better angels of our nature” remains as appropriate today as when he first made it in 1861. Perhaps Nixon’s first inaugural address deserves a reappraisal? Consider this: Nixon’s inaugural represented a change in parties, a Republican taking over for a Democratic administration that had been discredited by the Vietnam War. But he did not use the occasion to sound triumphant. Instead, Nixon took an almost spiritual tone:
Standing in this same place a third of a century ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a Nation ravaged by depression and gripped in fear. He could say in surveying the Nation’s troubles: “They concern, thank God, only material things.”
Our crisis today is the reverse. We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them.
To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit. To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. When we listen to “the better angels of our nature,” we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.
Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us.
To lower our voices would be a simple thing.
In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.
We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another—until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.
What words these are!
It’s easy to argue that Nixon himself didn’t live up to much of that he had to say that cold January day, but that’s beside the point. Many politicians fail to live up to their promises. For that matter, so do many people who aren’t politicians. The point is that, however dark Nixon’s soul was, he did not use his rhetoric that day to sharpen the divisions between his fellow citizens.
At the time, it felt as if American society was coming apart. The year before had seen assassinations and riots. The 1960s represented a cultural revolution that unnerved older generations. Long-held assumptions were being set ablaze, much like draft cards, flags and bras. In hindsight, though, Nixon lived in a much gentler time than our own. He didn’t much care for the press, but he also didn’t have radio and television talk show hosts riling up their audiences with simplistic talking points. He didn’t have people sharing misinformation on social media. He didn’t have Twitter.
Still, when given the biggest megaphone America had to offer at the time, Nixon used it to urge Americans to be, well, better Americans.
Yes, the day has come when we look back on Richard Nixon and think, now there was someone we should be listening to today.