Richard Nixon once described “the great American legend as to how presidential candidates are born and made.” According to the legend, a mother would take her newborn son out of his crib, look into his eyes and proclaim, “You, son, are going to be president someday.”
Since the day he was born, President Nixon excelled at everything he did. At Whittier College he played football, practiced competitive debate, founded a new literary society, became involved with student government and helped with the family’s business. His application to Duke Law School included three recommendations, one of which was written by Whittier’s president, who wrote, “I cannot recommend him too highly because I believe that Nixon will become one of America’s important, if not great leaders.” After receiving an acceptance and full-tuition scholarship to Duke, Nixon told his friends that he would one day give back to the institution in extraordinary ways. Nixon not only had to deal with intense competition among students to keep his scholarship, but he also worked in the library to pay back loans.
Anxiety and pessimism drove Nixon to work harder. Often, he would wake up each day at the crack of dawn, study until classes began, work in the library during the afternoon and study throughout the late evening. Despite this, Nixon was elected as president of the Duke Student Bar Association, was inducted into various honor societies and graduated third in his class. Dean Claude Horack later wrote that Nixon was “one of the finest young men, both in character and ability, that I have ever had the opportunity of having in my classes.”
After taking a job at the Office of Price Administration and enlisting in the Navy, Nixon would go on to become a congressman, senator, vice president and president—arguably the most famous and accomplished alumnus in Duke’s history. He would go on to say, “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.”
During his first term as vice president, Nixon was slated to speak at Duke’s 1954 Commencement ceremony. After Hollis Edens, then-president of the University, brought the issue before the general faculty, it was decided by the majority not to award the honorary degree to Nixon. Thus, Nixon was distanced from the University and denied the privilege of speaking at graduation. In the aftermath of the Watergate incident, Sidney P. Marland Jr., assistant secretary for education in the Nixon administration, visited Duke and recommended the establishment of Nixon’s presidential library at the University—a vision that was ultimately not carried out, due in part to objections from faculty and students.
Sure, the establishment of the library at that time might have impacted Duke’s image, but does it really make sense for our University to diminish, and continue to diminish, the respect and appreciation it ought to have for one of its most distinguished alumni? The University’s policy, ever since Nixon became vice president, seems to have been to avoid a large relationship with the former president’s image. One of Duke’s only portraits of Nixon was loaned to Congress more than a decade ago, and some Duke administrators have argued that Nixon should not have a significant legacy at Duke. Of course, Nixon was far from perfect, but we can’t ignore the fact that he enriched our relationship with the Soviet Union, established diplomatic relations with China, terminated the military draft, presided over the desegregation of public schools in the South and ratified the first significant federal affirmative action plan. He was a man who made history, regardless.
If anything, the Watergate scandal and the landmark Supreme Court decision in United States v. Nixon only made the president’s stint in the White House more pertinent to law school education. Though prior events and an unwarranted bias may inhibit the University from wholly recognizing and appreciating its most accomplished alumnus, Nixon never resented his alma mater. Through his enduring devotion to the University, Nixon verified that he retained a superior moral character than his instructors and their successors, both of whom repeatedly cite Nixon’s one incident as a reason to disregard his school pride, significant accomplishments and high regard for the University.
We should be offended by Duke’s treatment of someone who was not only our former president, but also a fellow alumnus. The University ought to apologize to the Nixon family for rejecting someone who appreciated his alma matter so much that he would cite Duke as the reason he was successful.
It scares me to think that if I end up making a mistake in the future, Duke will be ashamed of me, as well.
Mousa Alshanteer is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Mousa on Twitter @mousaalshanteer.