New Year’s Wisdom from Richard M. Nixon (don’t laugh)
Everyone has a string of bad luck from time to time. The raw deal years roll over and over your toes like the grooved tires of a loaded pick-up truck. The boon years feel like one glass of champagne after another, but without the succeeding headache and the pictures of you doing handstands wearing only underwear…or less.
For us, the bum luck began shortly after the New Year in 2007 and ran until 2011 or 12. When I look back on pictures of us from that time, my husband and I appear easily ten years older than we do now.
It started with a diagnosis. Our baby was going to be born with a tumor. Then, like a bad party, things just kept getting worse and no one would give us a ride home. Our baby was premature, the tumor turned out to be cancerous, the cancer needed to be treated, surgeries ensued, and then came the interminable waiting. Waiting to see if the cancer would come back, if our little girl would be normal – whatever that means, and waiting to see how we would emerge from this as a family. In the middle of all of this waiting, the economy crashed, forcing us to wait some more. Wait and see if our business would survive, if it could recover, if we had the smarts and the gumption to adapt.
Waiting not just to see if we could pull through – we did – but thrive again. We did that, too. Thank God.
There were a lot of things that got us through those years. Love, for one. We’ve been blessed with a lot of it. A backbone – both my husband and I were raised by no nonsense people whose eyes glaze over the moment a self-pitying cadence enters any given conversation. Friends, family and even downright strangers prayed for us, lent an ear, offered advice, or just offered to hold our hands.
One of those people was former President Richard Nixon.
“The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire,” he said.
I’ve collected quotes since I was a little girl. My husband is downright obsessed with them. And not just the inspirational ones. Funny, brainy, polarizing, dark, and downright insane bits of speech all work their way onto our family quote board, which is presided over by my husband in his home office.
We like all kinds of quotes and they don’t have to be from people we particularly admire. They just have to mean something to us – ring a bell at a poignant time in our lives. Speaking for myself, I admit I rarely seek out quotes in a time of victory. Quotes, for me, are about the journey. In short, they inspire me to get there, wherever there is. They pat my back, hug me, light a fire under my a**, tell me to get up or shut up. Most importantly, they tell me not to give up.
And for some reason, when my family was going through our seriously grave times a few years ago, Richard Nixon’s words made semi-regular appearances on our quote board.
Oh, sure, we had the quotes you might expect, too.
“I get pretty impatient with people who are able-bodied but are somehow paralyzed for other reasons.” Christopher Reeve
“Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” Anais Nin
“The Greater the Difficulty, the Greater the Glory.” Cicero
“Fate itself is like a wonderful, wide fabric in which every thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another thread and is held and supported by a hundred others.” Rilke
“When you turn the corner and run into yourself, then you know that you have turned all the corners that are left.” Langston Hughes
“Confront boldness by being still more bold.” Napoleon.
And my husband’s mantra during his twenties and early thirties – one of the reasons I went wild for him :
“Well, some people do hide and others seek. Maybe those who are in hiding—escaping encounters, avoiding surprises, protecting their property, ignoring their fantasies, restricting their feelings, sitting out the Pan pipe hootchy-kootch of experience—maybe those people, people who won’t talk to rednecks, or if they’re rednecks won’t talk to intellectuals, people who’re afraid to get their shoes muddy or their noses wet, afraid to eat what they crave, afraid to drink Mexican water, afraid to bet a long shot to win, afraid to hitchhike, jaywalk, honky-tonk, cogitate, osculate, levitate, rock it, bop it, sock it, or bark at the moon, maybe such people are simply inauthentic, and maybe the jackleg humanist who says differently is due to have his tongue fried on the hot slabs of Liar’s Hell. Some folks hide, and some folks seek, and seeking, when it’s mindless, neurotic, desperate, or pusillanimous can be a form of hiding. But there are folks who want to know and aren’t afraid to look and won’t turn tail should they find it–and if they never do, they’ll have a good time anyway because nothing, neither the terrible truth not the absence of it, is going to cheat them out of one honest breath of earth’s sweet gas.”—Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
All of these were tremendously helpful – putting wind into our sails on days when we felt nothing other than hot, dead air.
Of course, I realize that for many people on both sides of the political aisle, Richard Nixon is hardly someone whose wisdom you want to trot out in polite company.
To be honest, it started out as a joke – a little black humor that infused our moods like a change of music. My parents and grandparents were and are big fans of our 37th president and like most people of our generation, we’ve been skeptical of their hero in ways we haven’t been of other divisive figures they admire – Truman, Churchill, Reagan.
Years ago, when I was rolling my eyes and getting on my grandmother’s case for her Nixon worship, she said to me, “Other than Watergate, what do you know about President Nixon?”
The truth was…nothing. Other than somesuch whatever about opening up China, blah, blah, blah.
A few days later, a package containing “Leaders” arrived on our doorstep in San Francisco. It was like receiving intellectual porn, and we hid the book on our shelf, careful to turn the spine so that no one could read what it said.
Later, my grandmother called.
“A real thinker samples from every variety of thought,” she said.
I really do love it when people force me to think outside of my smug, little box. I not only turned “Leaders” around so that our visitors could see it when they walked into our living room, but actually took it off the shelf and read it.
Because regardless of how things turned out in Mr. Nixon’s case – and admittedly, they turned out bad – the fact is, the man knew something about survival. And so did my grandmother.
And in his own, quirky way he provided levity and yes, even motivation during some of our very bleakest moments. His presence on our quote board was a great conversation starter when we had company and the inevitable question came – “Can I ask you why you’re quoting Richard Nixon?”
In a house where Mr. Nixon’s reminiscences about Khrushchev, de Gaulle, and MacArthur sit comfortably on a shelf with the musings of Noam Chomsky, Hunter S. Thompson, David Brooks and Christopher Hitchens, the answer should be obvious.
(Yard with Lunatics by Goya)
But now that the good times are back – at least for a while – we can put Mr. Nixon away and take comfort in other words of wisdom.
“Nobody is bored when he is trying to make something that is beautiful, or to discover something that is true.” William Inge
“If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point to writing.” Kingsley Amis
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” Thoreau
“Follow your bliss.” Joseph Campbell
But I will always hold a special place in my heart for a certain angry, brilliant, disgraced, strong, corrupt and groundbreaking politician. Reading his books helped me understand my parents better, love them deeper. Nixon’s roll in the Cold War shaped their lives as his understanding of Russia and China was unmatched by any other American President. His domestic shenanigans were forgivable to people who had clawed their way over the Iron Curtain – even if to us, on the other side, Watergate was not only like learning Santa wasn’t real, but that the adorable guy who played him at the mall was actually a drunk creep who kept his furry, red pants unzipped while you whispered your dreams into his ear.
Still, I have to hand it to Mr. Nixon. He not only gave me a mischievous laugh right when I really needed one, but challenged my perceptions and forced nuance into some of my most steadfast opinions.
As the left-leaning Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, “The most liberal democratic administration in the second half of the 20th century was Richard Nixon’s first term. Between 1968 and 1972, Mr. Nixon expanded welfare benefits, fortified civil rights for women and minorities, and created the EPA.”
So, maybe I’m being a little too hasty in erasing Mr. Nixon’s words from our quote board. He may still have plenty of wisdom to impart. The least of which filters through people I love who happen to love him. In my family’s long and complicated history with President Nixon, the best thing to come out of it is a piece of sage advice. I won’t go so far as to urge you to take it, but I’m going to do my damnedest to try in this coming year:
It’s never too late to give someone a second chance.
Happy New Year, Cold readers.