Despite being at the top of the list of notable alums, Richard Nixon—who graduated from Duke Law in 1937—is treated more or less as a skeleton in Duke’s closet. Literally. The only portrait the University owns of Nixon is not displayed for fear of it being vandalized or stolen.
That being said, President Nixon—in addition to his brother Edward, who graduated from the University in 1952—has left a legacy at Duke. That he is the only Duke graduate to be President of the United States is notable. Moreover, during his career and life, Nixon emphasized how Duke impacted him. In a 1960 speech, Nixon said, “I always remember that whatever I have done in the past or may do in the future, Duke University is responsible in one way or another.”
After the Watergate Scandal, the former president was symbolically disowned from Duke. In 1981, Nixon staff and Terry Sanford, then the president of the University, began negotiations to house Nixon’s presidential library at Duke. Due to protests from faculty and students, however, nothing past discussions materialized, and the Nixon Library was instead built in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Despite his turbulent history with the University, Duke Law students are making amends. Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a feature on a play put on by students. The subject: none other than their school’s most illustrious alum, “Tricky Dick.” Slavik Gabinsky, a recent graduate of Duke Law, said “[the play] is as much about poking fun at Nixon as celebrating him.” However, it is undeniable that there is an honorary implication inherent to putting on a play about an alum, even if he is portrayed as an “ethically challenged Duke law student running for student body president.”
The play, which received rave reviews, leaves a legacy of its own. Is it indicative of students’ changing attitudes toward the former president? Or perhaps just a reminder that time heals wounds and subdues passions?
Personally, I thought the concept of a play about Nixon was genius. Though Nixon was a conservative, if you get past the rhetoric and scandal of his presidency and its legacy, Nixon was actually progressive on some fronts. Though he’s known largely for his foreign policy measures, Nixon also made achievements on the domestic front. The largest integration of public schools in the South took place during his presidency, and he signed the Philadelphia Plan into law, which was the first significant federal affirmative action plan. Moreover, his presidency in many ways shaped the modern conservative movement, which in turn reflexively shaped ideology of the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that he should be looked at as an admirable figure or someone necessarily worthy of praise by liberals—or anyone, for that matter—today. However, he is an important figure in American politics for liberals and conservatives alike. And, even if you disagree with Nixon politically and condemn him for his moral transgressions, it is inescapable that he is part of the University’s history.