“If you seek his monument, look around you.” So goes the epitaph for the architect Sir Christopher Wren, whose churches fill London.
So where do you go in Washington, D.C., to seek Richard Nixon’s monument? There’s no Nixon Memorial, as there is for Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
There’s a center for the performing arts named for the man who edged Nixon in the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy, as well as an airport named for the man who nearly snatched the 1968 Republican presidential nomination from Nixon, Ronald Reagan.
But if you look a little harder, Nixon’s monuments are all around you in Washington.
Let’s start where Nixon did when he arrived here as a newly elected House member in 1947.
Every day, young Rep. Nixon went to work in the Cannon House Office building on Capitol Hill. Although the room numbers in the Cannon building have been changed since 1947, Nixon’s office was somewhere on the fifth floor.
Fame from Hiss investigation
In the cavernous caucus room on the second floor of the Cannon Building, in the summer of 1948, Nixon starred in his first spectacular political role, as the investigator of the espionage accusations made by ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers against his former friend, Alger Hiss, who had served as a top State Department official in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and a key aide to FDR at the 1945 Yalta conference.
On the strength of Nixon’s zealous performance in the Hiss case, he won a seat in the Senate, and in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower picked him as his running mate.
Today in the hallway just outside the Senate chamber, there’s a marble bust of Nixon in his vice presidential years. Diagonally opposite Nixon is the bust of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the man Nixon narrowly defeated in the 1968 election.
Walk a few steps to the hallway on the east side of the Senate chamber and you’ll see a bust of Spiro Agnew, the obscure Maryland governor whom Nixon picked as his running mate in 1968.
Agnew was forced to resign in 1974 when prosecutors found evidence that he took kickbacks from contractors while governor, with payments continuing even after he became vice president.
Well before his resignation, Agnew caused one news media ruckus after another with his portrayal of Humphrey as “squishy soft on communism” and of liberal Republican Sen. Charles Goodell of New York, who switched from supporting the Vietnam war to opposing it, as "the Christine Jorgensen of American politics.” (Jorgensen was a well-known transsexual of that era.)
Veterans of the administration
While Agnew is gone and mostly forgotten, Nixon’s legacy is quite alive in the still-active veterans of his administration.
Walk upstairs to the Senate visitors’ gallery; take a seat during a roll call vote, and you will see four senators who evoke the Nixon Era:
- Sen. John Warner, R-Va.: The courtly Virginian served as Nixon’s Secretary of the Navy.
- Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.: The Senate’s senior member at age 86, Byrd in the 1970s was a conservative who sometimes sided with Nixon. In 1971, Nixon toyed with idea of naming Byrd to the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the retirement of Justice Hugo Black. According to Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, Nixon seemed to relish the idea of putting “a former KKKer” who was “even more reactionary than (George Wallace)” before the Democratic-controlled Senate for confirmation.
- Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.: As a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, Sarbanes was one of 27 members who voted to impeach Nixon for Watergate-related obstruction of justice, thus making his resignation inevitable.
- Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.: Lott also served on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings, acting as one of the president’s outnumbered defenders.
Asked recently about impeachment’s effect on him, Lott told MSNBC.com, “It was a very difficult process and very emotional for me. I was a 32-year-old new member of Congress and an admirer of President Nixon and supported him until the ‘smoking gun’ tape came out. I indicated at that point that I would vote for one article of impeachment, the obstruction article, which was extremely hard to do. It took me months to get over the trauma and the concern that we were doing damage to the presidency.”
Lott recalled that at the Judiciary Committee hearings he sat next to then-Rep. William Cohen, the Maine Republican who later became a senator and Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense.
“He and I did not agree,” Lott said. “I remember pleading with him to vote with us, even on some procedural issues, which he did not. It took me years to forgive him for that, but when I came to the Senate we actually got to be close friends.”
Leave the Capitol building and walk across First Street to the Supreme Court. During days scheduled for oral argument from fall to early summer, you can take a seat and watch another old Nixon hand, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was the chief adviser to Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell.
On Oct. 29, 1971, Nixon nominated Rehnquist to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
The release of the secret White House tapes later revealed that Nixon had a dim view of the Arizona lawyer’s appearance, recalling Rehnquist as one of "that group of clowns” that had come to the White House for a meeting, “Renchburg and that group."
"Renchburg" had offended Nixon’s fashion sense by having modishly long sideburns and wearing a pink shirt and a paisley tie to the meeting.
Another Nixon alumnus can be found across the Potomac at the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld served as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the government’s anti-poverty agency, under Nixon.
But on April 7, 1971, according to the account by Jim Mann in his book "Rise of the Vulcans," Nixon complained to Haldeman and Henry Kissinger that Rumsfeld was making a nuisance of himself by agitating for an early U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
“I think Rumsfeld may be not too long for this world," Nixon told his aides, in a conversation captured on the White House tapes. "Let's dump him."
Nixon didn’t dump him, instead later appointed him ambassador to NATO.
Friend to workers
If you want a memorial to Nixon the friend of the working man and woman, go to 200 Constitution Ave. N.W., the Department of Labor building, home to the office of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which enforces standards for workplace safety, covering everything from cranes and derricks to poultry processing.
Nixon signed the law creating OSHA in 1971.
By today’s standards, the Nixon of 1971 was a big-government liberal. Want more proof? Go to 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created by Nixon in July of 1970. Today EPA’s army of 18,000 employees regulates drinking water, medical waste and hundreds of other things.
Nixon also signed into law the Clean Air Act of 1970, which set deadlines for reducing automobile emissions.
And he signed both the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 and the even stronger Endangered Species Act of 1973. Next time you see a peregrine falcon or a chinook salmon, thank Richard Nixon.
Two more stops will bring your Nixon Legacy Tour of the Nation’s Capitol to a close.
To hear Nixon mulling over his fate as Watergate investigators closed in on him, take a trip to the suburb of College Park, Md., and visit the National Archives facility that houses a treasure trove of Nixon’s presidential documents and recordings. Check the archives Web site's Nixon page before making your trip.
To bring your Nixon journey to a finale, go snap a photo of the former Howard Johnson Motor Lodge on Virginia Avenue across from the Watergate office complex.
Acquired in 1999 by George Washington University and now used as a dormitory for first-year students, this is where, in room 732, Watergate conspirators Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy kept lookout as their accomplices broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building.
Today GWU runs a seminar program to teach freshman students living in the dorm about an event that took place 14 years before they were born.