In June 1983, at the end of more than thirty hours of interviews about his life and times, the conversation, winding down, now turned to “mountaintop” and “legacy” questions. The former President had already indicated his displeasure with touchy feely topics — “psychohistory is for psychos” as he put it. His answer to the question “Do you consider you’ve had a good life?” was: “I don’t get into that kind of crap.”
But when he was asked how he thought he would be remembered, and how he would like to be remembered, by history, he took the question seriously and considered his answer.
This is his answer:
Henry Kissinger said before I left office that he thought history would rate me as a great president. And my response was that it depended on who wrote the history.
A man cannot sit on his own jury.
However, if I were to be presenting the case before the jury of history, I think this would be what I would say. The instant historians, understandably, are obsessed with Watergate. They can hardly see anything else about me except Watergate and rate me very low. I understand that.
Historians maybe fifty years from now, I would hope, would see it in more perspective. Yes, there was Watergate, the first president ever to resign the office. That’s part of history.
But there’s also a more positive part. As far as the presidency is concerned, I’m the president that opened relations with China after twenty-five years of no communication. I ended a war in Vietnam, in which there were five hundred and fifty thousand Americans there when I came in and none when I left. I ended the draft. I negotiated the fist arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. I restored balance to the Supreme Court through my appointments. I initiated programs in the field of the environment and hunger and cancer and drugs that I think are very sound building blocks for the future. These are positive achievements. They must be there, along with the negative ones.
And I hope that the jury of history would consider that. I’d say finally, however, that as far as history is concerned, that my proudest legacy is something else. Winston Churchill, in his book Great Contemporaries, wrote of Prime Minster Asquith, the great prime minister at the beginning of World War One, and he said his best memorial is his family. I would say that my best memorial are my children. And I would say that for Mrs. Nixon in spades, because she made them what they are.