Five Key Legacies of Former President Richard Nixon On His 100th Birthday

VIDEO: President Nixon says he never illegally benefitted from public service in this 1973 press conference.
ABCNEWS.com

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of 37th President Richard Nixon.

Born in a farmhouse in Yorba Linda, Calif., in 1913, who could have known the Nixon baby would go on to be one of America's most influential and disgraced presidents of all time?

Nixon is perhaps best known for his leading role in the scandal at the Watergate hotel, immortalized in American pop culture through the book-turned-movie by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein called "All the President's Men." As former Washington bureau chief Donald Fulsom put it, Nixon "said, 'I'm not a crook,' but he was."

But ABC News political analyst Cokie Roberts and Nixon scholars insist: Nixon's legacy is larger than Watergate. He revolutionized foreign relations, set a foundation for modern environmental regulations and even advanced women's rights. Read on to find out more about Nixon's accolades and what biographer Bob Bostock says the president himself would call his "valleys."

PHOTO: U.S. President Richard Nixon stands on the steps of the presidential helicopter as he waves goodbye to the White House for the final time after resigning the presidency Aug. 9, 1974 in Washington, D.C.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
Watergate

Following the 1972 election in which Nixon defeated Democratic candidate George McGovern by a landslide, officials traced a brake-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel back to the Committee to Re-elect the President.

Nixon initially denied involvement, but during a televised hearing, he was forced to hand over Oval Office recordings of his conversations about the scandal. Eighteen minutes of those recordings were missing and have never been recovered since.

In August 1974, the House Judiciary Committee decided to move forward with the impeachment process, prompting Nixon to resign on Aug. 4, 1974, becoming the first president to do so.

Fulsom, who covered Nixon as a White House correspondent at the time and wrote the book "Nixon's Darkest Secrets," said that resignation is the first thing Americans think of when it comes to the 37th president.

Nixon's scandals went beyond Watergate, Fulsom said, calling him "the most corrupt president we've ever had."

"He pled off and got out of jail early a number of mafia figures who had enriched his personal coffers, and he was just one of the worst presidents," Fulsom said. "He hated just about everyone, including the press. It's very hard for me to think of him personally in any kind of positive way."

PHOTO: Chinese communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong (L) welcomes U.S. President Richard Nixon to his house in the Beijing Forbidden City on Feb. 22, 1972.
AFP/Getty Images
China and the USSR

Nixon's second best-known legacy in the eyes of the American people is built on the inroads he made for the United States in China, according to ABC News political analyst Cokie Roberts.

"He saw that there was this enormous nation that we had had no relations with for a decade and that it was counterproductive and he was ready to take the steps that would possibly bring China into the community of nations and he understood that he was the person to do that," Roberts said.

As a congressman, Nixon made a name for himself as what Roberts called "a red-baiter," taking a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was charged with rooting out Communist elements in American society.

"So for him to then go to Communist China was huge," Roberts said.

Bob Bostock, a writer for the Nixon Library who phone-banked for Nixon at age 14, said the president's trip to China at the end of 1972 was his best-known accomplishment.

"Bringing China into the family of nations, if you will, has not only played a huge role in China's own economic growth and increased levels of freedom for the Chinese people, it's also helped reduce tensions that existed not only during the Cold War," he said

Nixon's visit to Moscow in the same year and his detente with the Soviet Union also helped heal diplomatic wounds inflicted during the Cold War, according to Bostock.

Fulsom, ever a sharp Nixon critic, went so far as to say the president put an end to the Cold War.

In his old age, Nixon's foreign relations wisdom was recognized by current leaders, and they turned to him for advice, Roberts said.

"Future presidents and other politicians did begin to consult him. And now after a great deal of turmoil and controversy, his daughters have turned his library over to the National Archives and Records Administration, just like the other past presidents," Roberts said. "And it tells his story.

PHOTO: A fire tug fights flames on the Cuyahoga River near downtown Cleveland, Ohio, where oil and other industrial wastes caught fire June 25, 1952.
AP Photo
The EPA

Today the Environmental Protection Agency is championed mainly by Democrats, but in 1970, Nixon created the organization, hoping to address rampant pollution that had become problematic in the previous decade.

Environmental problems in the United States burst into the national consciousness after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in June 1969, and in 1970, 20 million Americans protested against pollution on Earth Day, according to the Earth Day Network.

Nixon, ever the fiscal conservative, clashed with Congress on how much to spend on the Clean Water Act to prevent such dangers from happening again, and Congress eventually overrode Nixon's veto.

But he is credited with establishing two environmental oversight bodies -- the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency -- and with submitting numerous environmental proposals to Congress.

Bostock said Nixon's work on the environment was "hugely important."

"Our environment is in much better shape," thanks to Nixon, Bostock said.

PHOTO: Demonstrators on a Vietnam victory march down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C. on March 10, 1970.
Len Owens/Keystone/Getty Images
Ending the Draft

While Nixon's critics accuse him of undermining Lyndon Johnson's peace talks with the Vietnamese government and prolonging American involvement in Vietnam, few fault him for putting an end to the vastly unpopular system of drafting young men to serve in the armed forces.

In September 1969, he cancelled the November and December calls for the draft.

After reviewing results of the Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force in February 1970, Nixon told Congress that he recommended phasing out the draft all together.

"We have all seen the effect of the draft on our young people, whose lives have been disrupted first by years of uncertainty, and then by the draft itself. We all know the unfairness of the present system, no matter how just we try to make it," Nixon wrote in his Special Message to the Congress on Draft Reform.

The plan Nixon suggested involved raising wages for enlisted men and women and federal employees across the board.

Nixon himself served in the Navy during World War II.

PHOTO: Senator Birch Bayh exercises with Title IX athletes at Purdue University, circa 1970s.
Birch Bayh Senate Office
Title IX

How many Americans realize that the law that requires girl's sports teams to receive equal funding with boys' teams was signed by Richard Nixon?

In 1972, Nixon signed into law Title IX, a section of the Education Amendment that says, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

The 40th anniversary of the law was celebrated this year. ABC's Serena Marshall reported on that anniversary: "Since its passage, girls' participation in sports has gone from 1 in 27 to 2 in 5 at the high school level."

Bostock said this and Nixon's other positive accomplishments did enough to outweigh the failures of his administration.

"I think if you look back -- and what better time to look back on a man's life than on the 100th anniversary of his birth? -- at the totality of his record and the influence he had on the country and the world, it was really extraordinary and on balance for the good," he said.

Fulsom disagreed, saying Nixon's greatest legacy was one of "distrust in the president and the government."

"I think he left definitely a negative impression on all those who lived during the time, and it continues to this day," Fulsom said. "Just about every book that's ever been written about him paints a rather dim portrait as a leader."

Love him or hate him, there's no denying, President Richard Nixon changed the course of American history.

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