Yesterday, I had dinner with Ed Nixon, who is the only surviving brother of former President Richard Nixon. The main event, held at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, was to hear President Eisenhower's grandson, David, give a very stirring and fascinating talk about his grandfather.
This got me to thinking about how relatives of the famous and powerful function in their families, and find their own way in life. In both Ed Nixon's case, and in David Eisenhower's, they have carried their family's names with dignity and class.
Nixon, a geologist and global energy expert, as well as a former Naval Reserve Captain, is a charming and humorous dinner companion, who I found to be utterly compelling as a conversation partner. While living in the shadow of his brother, whom he reveres ("my father was the disciplinarian, but Dick was my mentor," he said, matter of factly), Nixon has carved out a place for himself that shows him as his own man, and yet protective of the positive aspects of his brother's legacy, and, frankly, there are many. For his part, Nixon himself didn't go to China himself until ten years after his brother's opening to China in 1972, but he has since been back thirty times.
And what do you think he told the Chinese?
He lectures them about the need to reduce their carbon output. Now, if that isn't counter-intuitive, I don't know what is, but he does. He is widely versed in a myriad of subjects, from energy to electric cars to foreign affairs. He serves as the chairman of the Nixon Presidential Library board. He has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humor, and was at the elbow of his brother in many key moments in American history, from his brother's nomination as Vice President in 1952, to be being integrally involved in the president's election campaign in 1968. His physical resemblance to the 37th president is striking. He is a very tall, handsome man with a rangy frame and quick hands.
I was asked to give a few remarks, at the spur of the moment. I was asked about Sacramento versus Portland, and I observed that it was about 84 that day in sunny Sac, while it was a brisk 54 and drizzling in the Rose City. I told the group that I lived in a home with a small pool, and a palm tree. Groans. I added that I also had a Meyer lemon tree, and I said it was the "poorest little lemon tree in California, I can assure you." Nixon laughed, knowing I referred to a line in his brothers farewell address, which is perhaps one of the most moving pieces of political rhetoric I've ever seen.
Eisenhower is academic and quick, and gave a fine performance. He spoke of his boyhood as the General's grandson, and how the former President was a rather stern taskmaster, paying him a quarter an hour for labor on the General's farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Eisenhower's father, John S.D. Eisenhower, is still a very active 91, and a noted military historian in his own right. He observed in his own memoir that he was born "standing at attention." For his part, David Eisenhower wrote a history book about his grandfather that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, no mean feat, I can assure you. It's a very tough category.
Way tougher than editorial cartooning.
Nixon confessed his love of political cartooning, and invited me to give a presentation at the Nixon Library on the subject, which I was very happy to accept. I noted that I was a friend of the late Herblock, and he didn't bat an eye, given his brother's long career at the business end of Block's very pointed brush.
As we look back now forty years out from Watergate, both Nixon, the beloved youngest brother, and Eisenhower, an accomplished lecturer and citizen, have moved on and thrived through what must have been crushing personal adversity. I can still remember the footage of Eisenhower's tear-stained face as his father-in-law faced the country and offered about as much of an apologia as he could muster. I admire Ed Nixon and David Eisenhower very much. They found their way back, as has the United States. Nixon in particular noted that he felt the election of President Obama was the greatest thing for civil rights this country could have done. Indeed, Eisenhower's wife, President Nixon's daughter (and Eisenhower's sister) jointly endorsed Obama in 2008.
National reconciliation is possible. The Nixon and Eisenhower family has lived it and practiced it.
In Ed Nixon's words last night, that was the most important thing of all, that we are Americans first and ought to act that way.
Simple, yes, but hard to execute.
But if everyone saw and heard what I saw last night, maybe this country would be a bit better off.