Richard M. Nixon was the 37th president of the United States and the only one ever to resign. An ambitious and enigmatic political figure, he thawed relations with the communist world but could never escape the stain of the Watergate scandal that drove him from office.
Nixon was president from Jan. 20, 1969, to Aug. 9, 1974, when he quit to avoid certain impeachment. His farewell salute as he left Washington would be one of the enduring images of the century.For nearly half a century, Nixon aroused strong passions as a congressman, senator, vice president and president, and even in his forced retirement.
To the end, he sought influence in world affairs through extensive travel, books, articles and speeches. World leaders welcomed him as an elder statesman, but Nixon himself conceded he would forever be known at home as the "disgraced former president."
"It was a price that was inevitable," he said. "I accepted the fact that it had to be paid."
Early on, he established a reputation as a communist hunter and political gutfighter. And yet he evolved into the president who forged links with China, pursued detente with the Soviet Union and began the U.S. withdrawal from the Vietnam War.
"I was born in the year 1913, so I have lived through, as far as America is concerned, four wars: World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam," Nixon said in an 80th birthday interview. "My major goal throughout my political career was to make a contribution to policies which would make the 21st century a century of peace."
A brooding and combative president, Nixon left behind a core of loyalists who insisted he did nothing other presidents hadn't and detractors who recoiled at the mention of his name.
To those, he was always the dark-visaged "Tricky Dick" who planted microphones around the Oval Office to record conversations, who ordered taps on the telephones of suspected leakers, who formulated enemies' lists and did not hesitate to use the power of the government to retaliate against opponents, and who was helped plot the Watergate cover-up.
Watergate got its name from the Washington office complex that housed the Democratic National Committee. Agents hired by the White House broke in to plant wiretaps. When the break-in came to light, Nixon and his closest aides tried to cover it up. Subsequently the term "Watergate" came to embrace a collection of official misdeeds.
"While I was not involved in the decision to conduct the break-in, I should have set a higher standard for the conduct of the people who participated in my campaign and administration," Nixon wrote in one of his last books, "In the Arena."
"I should have established a moral tone that would have made such actions unthinkable. I did not."
That was as close as he would permit himself to come to confessing wrongdoing.
At his side during a long, turbulent political career was his wife, the former Thelma Catherine Ryan, known as Pat. She died of lung cancer on June 22, 1993, the day after their 53rd wedding anniversary.
Their daughter Julie is married to David Eisenhower, grandson of the late President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and daughter Tricia is married to Edward Cox, a New York lawyer.
The Nixons lived in virtual exile in San Clemente, Calif., for more than five years after his resignation, then moved east in 1980 to be near their grandchildren, Jennie, Melanie and Alex Eisenhower and Christopher Cox.
Nixon resigned after Republican lawmakers told him they could not win an impeachment trial in the Senate - that he would become the first president ever thrown out of office. He had been president for five years 201 days.
"It has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress," Nixon told a television audience of more than 100 million the night before. The whole nation, it seemed, was tuned in. In the Kennedy Center in Washington, a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet was interrupted while TV sets were wheeled on stage.
A month later, the country was torn when Nixon's successor, Gerald R. Ford, issued a pardon for all crimes that Nixon "committed or may have committed or taken part in," during his presidency. Ford noted that Nixon had become liable "to possible indictment and trial."
"Next to the resignation, accepting the pardon was the most painful decision of my political career," Nixon said later.
Fearing that Nixon would destroy evidence of wrongdoing, Congress seized the 8,000 hours of tape recordings and 42 million pages of documents created during his administration. Nixon fought the rest of his life to keep some of them from public scrutiny.
"I have spent more than $1.8 million in attorneys' fees," Nixon said in 1990.
He was under no illusions of how he would be remembered - as the president who resigned the office.
"There's no appeal," he told Time magazine.
Nixon's philosophy was to move on. "I came to accept Watergate and the resignation simply as one major defeat in a career that involved both victories and losses, both peaks and valleys," he said. So he devoted his post-presidential life to traveling - including five visits to China - and speaking with world leaders. He made his 10th visit to Moscow in March.
He published nine books in all, starting with "Six Crises" in 1962 and the rest after his resignation. Every book, every article, every television interview, brought comment that it was a step in a carefully planned road to rehabilitation.
"He's Back!" Newsweek proclaimed over his picture on its cover.
But no one heard that from Nixon himself.
"What am I going to come back to?" he said once. "We already have a very good mayor in Saddle River, and we have a very good governor in the state of New Jersey. It isn't a comeback. It isn't to be well thought of. The purpose is to get a message across, and then let history judge."
He had been a dedicated anti-communist at the start of his political career. As president, he ended two decades of distance and distrust between the United States and China - exchanging toasts with Premier Chou En-lai in Beijing. He established a live-and-let-live policy of detente toward the Soviet Union and negotiated arms control agreements with its leaders.
Nixon inherited the Vietnam war, and the hatreds it engendered at home. In the 1968 presidential campaign he asked voters, he recalled later, "to take on faith my ability to end the war." But it took him four years to reach a cease-fire agreement - years when the nation divided ever more bitterly over his bombing of Cambodia and prosecution of the war, years when the nation suffered thousands more casualties in Indochina. He could not appear in public without drawing protesters.