Richard Nixon Was… Not A Crook?


The Society convened for the twelfth time this semester to debate Resolved: Nixon’s achievements outweighed his moral failures. Keynoting on the affirmation was Vice President Pat Spagnuolo (SFS ’14) of New York. On the negation was Mr. Elijah Jatovsky (SFS ’16) of California. 

Vice President Spagnuolo began his speech by outlining the three burdens of his side: To prove that the United States was in a crisis prior to Nixon’s tenure, that Nixon navigated us out of the crisis, and that his success in moving the nation towards a better future outweigh his moral shortcomings. To prove the first criterion, Mr. Spagnuolo spoke to the State of the Union in 1969: deteriorating relations with China, embroilment in Vietnam, and a civil rights movement at fever pitch. Nixon implemented domestic policies to address the lack of environmental regulation and enforce desegregation, while succeeding in the global sphere as well. His dearmament agreements with Russia, visit to China and extraction of US troops from Vietnam contributed to the United States’ current world standing today. While he was a paranoid man who fell to his vices, he was only unique in that he got caught. “Is getting caught what your moral judgement should hinge upon?”

Mr. Jatovsky defended two main pillars of argument: Primarily that Nixon should not be fully accredited for bringing the United States out of crisis, and secondly that any successes the former president could claim were overshadowed by his moral transgressions. Nixon was aided by the political atmosphere of the time; environmental regulation policies were passed owing in large part to the Democratic Congress, and would not have opened diplomatic relations with China nor forged disarmament with Russia if not for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger calling the shots.  Further, a leaders’s character ought to be the ultimate arbiter of success, and Nixon’s sported a “shattered moral compass,” Mr. Jatovsky argued. “The ideal virtues of leaders are the mechanisms by which they achieve their ends. A leader’s accomplishments are only as admirable as the means by which they are achieved.”

Mr. Will Hallisey (COL ’16) underscored some of Nixon’s greatest achievements by identifying their lasting effects to this day. Segregation plummeted from 90% to 10% over the course of his tenure, and we now have an open dialogue with China on a daily basis. Ms. Colleen Wood contended that looking at Nixon’s achievements is irrelevant, and we ought to instead decide if the Watergate Scandal changed the way Americans view their government. Ms. Anna Hernick argued that on a macro level, Richard Nixon advanced the disparate interests of a wide variety of groups in many arenas, a success we should desire from our leaders. Mr. Agree Ahmed asserted that in a time of crisis, a nation needs not just policy solutions but a leader who can increase morale. “What does it mean that the man we elected to represent our system of government didn’t even respect it?”

Mr. Jacob Arber spoke to the “imperial presidency” that our executive leaders have been assuming and moving towards since George Washington’s own incumbency. “Nixon’s failings were no greater than those that preceded his own.” Mr. Reid Kelley (SFS ’13) accredited the continuing hostility over the Vietnam War and concurrent government cover-ups over the nature of our involvement there with eroding trust in our government.  Mr. Taylor Willis defended the former president’s involvement in Vietnam, arguing that South Vietnam was bound to collapse from the beginning and not just because Nixon brokered an imperfect peace. Ms. Emily Coccia contended that two wrongs, or even thirty-seven presidents’ worth of wrongs, don’t make a right. In allowing personal ambition to supersede love of country, Nixon ushered in an age in which we don’t trust the Federal government as having our interests at heart. Mr. Greg Miller asked whether Nixon’s transgressions were really that bad if they caused us to mistrust and question our government. 

Ms. Asha Thanki (SFS ’17) argued that even Nixon’s foreign successes were motivated by the interests of a small group. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a moral shortcoming unto itself.” Mr. Matthew Hardin (SFS ’17) asserted that it was this exact, albeit self-motivated, ambition that led Nixon to his accomplishments alongside his failings. “Presidents are, like us, only human.” Mr. Jeff Naft (COL ’17) compared Nixon to House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, and reiterated Nixon’s many personal shortcomings: a lack of respect for others, narcissism, and a refusal to compromise. Ms. Shalina Chatlani (SFS ’17) questioned the idea that morality has a significant place in politics to begin with. Much as we overlook Bill Clinton’s moral shortcomings to see how he benefited the United States, social welfare tends to take precedence over morality.

That Nixon continued lying long after the Watergate scandal was exposed, Ms. Julia Christensen argued, exposes the depth of his ethical failings. “The United States was falling apart at the seams and Richard Nixon betrayed the trust of the American people.” Mr. Warren Wilson argued that to judge the effects of Nixon’s stint in office means removing him from history and seeing where that leaves us. “Thus far, the affirmative wins that battle.” President Peter Prindiville contended that as far as the American system of government guarantees equality under the law, Richard Nixon undermined the spirit of his country for personal gain. Ms. Amanda Wynter responded that progress requires both moral failings and tactical blunders, and Nixon ought not be held to an impossible standard. “I believe in the United States more than to say one man could decimate our trust in government.”

Mr. Luke Young conceded that the narrative we hold about Watergate and the extent to which it was orchestrated by Nixon is inaccurate. “However, I’ve watched too many Nixon tapes to remember his achievements, and that’s a legacy we should preserve for better or for worse.” Mr. Jesse Whitfield pushed back against the idea that there are defined moral lines in the realm of statescraft. “Richard Nixon was not afraid to play the necessary game of politics: that is the reality of the game and of life.” Mr. Daniel Kendrick questioned the Affirmative’s premise that they represented practicality pitted against morality. Nixon, in fact, had a general disregard for long-term consequences and rarely acted on principle. “That’s the deeper moral failing.” Mr. Chris DiMisa argued that the former president was not immoral but rather paranoid, a lesser offense. Ms. Abby Grace argued that Nixon’s achievements are de facto irrelevant if the American public cannot, as Ms. Grace argued they can’t, see past his headlining moral failings to appreciate them. Mr. Michael Mouch urged the Society not to hold presidents to superhuman standards and to recognize the unusually tempting circumstances the Oval Office presents. “That we haven’t had a president who hasn’t committed a war crime in over 20 years is extremely telling.” 

Upon return to the keynote speakers, Mr. Jatovsky began his closing speech by reiterating that realistically, credit is owed to the Democratic Congress for many achievements during Nixon’s presidency.Further, Mr. Jatovsky holds, as should we, the President of the United States to a higher moral standard than he does ordinary citizens. 

Vice President Spagnuolo contended that Nixon took the fall for the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal out of respect for his party and a desire to protect their image. His paranoia publicly got the best of him, but we ought not feign ignorance of every other leader’s own imperfect moral compasses. Nixon was the “Genesis point” for relations with both China and the USSR and cannot be discredited for this. “While Nixon’s moral transgressions were not unique, his policy successes were.”

The Society voted 25 – 0 – 17 to affirm. Huzzah!


Madeleine M. Ringwald

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