Nixon’s Surprising Flaw

Today I am attending Richard Nixon's funeral, and pondering the paradoxes of his presidency. Even after resigning in disgrace, Nixon continued to dominate the world stage. What qualities made him perhaps the most remarkable figure of our time? I saw the answer first hand. First, his courage. Days before the 1972 Moscow summit, Hanoi launched a massive offensive. Nixon's options were bleak: respond militarily and torpedo the summit (jeopardizing his own re-election), or stand by passively and undercut our bargaining position in Moscow. After deliberating at Camp David, Nixon confided that he had decided to bomb Hanoi and mine Haiphong's harbors. "It may cost us the summit, Chuck, and even the election," he said. "But I must maintain America's honor." Anti-war activists howled. But the Soviets flinched, the offensive was repulsed, the summit proceeded; and within months our POWs came home. It was Nixon's finest hour. His intellect was formidable. He studied relentlessly, as conversant with Plato as with the Redskin's score card or Chicago precinct votes. When the liberal press praised his China policy, Nixon chuckled: "They don't understand. I'm not soft on communism; I'm driving a wedge between China and the Soviets. One day it will bring down communism." He was right. How was someone so courageous and shrewd snared in Watergate? That's the question I'm asked most often. Why didn't Nixon come clean and save his presidency? Conventional wisdom blames his "darker side." Having become a Christian, I have sympathy for that explanation. We all sin, and I reflect on my own past with repentance. But though Nixon's political ruthlessness is legendary, I believe his fatal flaw was— ironically enough—his gentle side. Nixon was incapable of chewing anyone out. He identified with ordinary people, something that middle America loved in him—and that the cultural elite never understood. He was intensely loyal, not only to Pat and his daughters but also to subordinates. Too loyal, perhaps, for his own good. We spoke together immediately after the break-in and he was stunned. Gradually he learned pieces of the puzzle, but not until March 1973 did he hear the whole story. Until then, it was successfully concealed by John Dean, mastermind of the cover-up (as the book Silent Coup establishes). Dean finally came clean, but within days he struck a deal with prosecutors to save his skin at Nixon's expense. Through it all, Nixon refused to finger his friends. Once I urged him to expose John Mitchell, but Nixon glared at me. "I can't do that. John didn't want to come to Washington and I made him do it. I can't forget that." Dante, who reserved hell's inner circle for those who betrayed their friends, would have understood. But it was a fatal misjudgment. Biographer Stephen Ambrose says history will remember Nixon as the first president to resign. But history will also have to remember him as a towering figure whose strategic genius changed the world dramatically. For today, those of us who knew him can take comfort that the man who spent all his life working for peace for others has finally found peace for himself.


Chuck Colson



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