“I let down ... the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt ...”
That’s what Richard Milhous Nixon said in a penitent portion of his televised interviews with David Frost.
It’s election week in America, a week when more than a year of mainstream media mania peaks.
Although the voting is done, the tensions and the challenges that exist in America continue. So will half-truths, the purposeful distortions and flat-out lies.
TV, after telling us why who won won, will go back to more stories on hometown heroes, global warming, the antics of celebrities and such. Regular people who have found themselves caught up in electoral frenzy will return to their routines.
But ponder what the disgraced former president said.
History uses only one crayon to color leaders of the past. They are good or they are bad. For Nixon, the image is dark and brooding.
He was the first and only (so far) president to resign after authorizing and/or covering up dirty campaign-related deeds. Unforgivable then, but pretty routine today.
Nixon resigned in 1974 and agreed to chat with Frost in 1977. Some said Nixon was merely promoting sales of his memoirs, which were already in process.
On many topics, Nixon was defensive. For instance, he pointed to his really good work on the international scene as well as economic progress. If not for taped records of him discussing misdeeds (sound familiar?), he would likely have served out his second term.
It was while reflecting on his resignation that Nixon admitted it would create ripples well beyond his personal reputation. In essence, he said his failures discouraged future leaders.
Think about that, too.
Who serves as your mayor, on your town council or school board? If you are in a good community, they are people of accomplishment, vision, purpose.
Who serves you in Congress, in the Legislature, in state offices? Are they people who have good ideas, people who work daily and aggressively toward resolving the aforementioned tensions and challenges? Or do they think parroting their party’s official talking points and padding their pockets is what you elected them to do?
Many have said the 2016 presidential primaries and this week’s election have been a race to the bottom. Seriously. Can it be argued that Hillary Clinton is the best Democrat in America? Or, even less likely, that Donald Trump embodies the best of Republicanism?
Just as Wal-Mart puts out Christmas trees before Halloween, people — from both parties — jumped the gun months ago to talk about better choices in 2020.
A person born in 1977 would be 39 years old today. Was Nixon right?
Everyone knows elections and politics have at times been down and dirty, but at the end of the day there were winners with a measure of merit.
In their speeches, Clinton and Trump have been for all of the same things — more and better jobs for Americans, improved racial understanding and justice, better infrastructure, less pollution, good schools. They’re for world peace and border security, too. They have different approaches, but mostly we heard from them and others about their many shortcomings.
Frost had asked Nixon about his regrets. Nixon recalled the staff meeting just before his exit from the White House. The full response:
“Well, when I said, ‘I just hope I haven’t let you down,’ that said it all. I had. I let down my friends. I let down the country. I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it’s all too corrupt and the rest.”
In the aftermath of this election, we’d all do well to think about the character and characteristics of people who work at all levels of government and who seek local, state and national offices.
Governing demands the best and brightest among us, those who are bold and resourceful. It doesn’t need those who time and again refuse to address tensions because they have the support of a majority.
Communities, the state and the nation need people who simply will not rest in order to bring people together to reach solutions. We don’t need those who cower to donors or lobbying groups.
Nixon feared that young people with aspirations and ability would cross public service off their list. If that happened, let’s hope this disgraceful election represents a bottoming-out, and that future ballots will bear more names of people of substance and character.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.