My first work for Richard Nixon, whom I began to serve in 1979, was research and editorial assistance on his 1982 book Leaders, a study of great men (plus Israel's Golda Meir) he'd known. To his rule that all his subjects had to be dead, he made one exception, for Lee Kuan Yew, then the prime minister of Singapore, whom he ranked with Churchill, Disraeli, and Gladstone in ability and vision and of whom he wrote:
[Lee] believed that discipline and firm guidance were necessary to diminish the hostility among Singapore's three racial groups and to think of themselves as Singaporean rather than as Chinese, Malays, and Indians. To a large extent he has succeeded, making Singapore the envy of many other multiracial societies.Now 86, Lee serves as "minister mentor" in a government headed by his son. On Saturday, he was the subject of a profile by Seth Mydans in the New York Times that was at least as affectionate as Nixon's. As with every article about this wise, self-aware, and vastly influential statesman, it makes readers wish they could meet him (which I did in Singapore in 1985, at a dinner he held in Nixon's honor five years before he stepped down as prime minister, and then again at a dinner we held in his honor in Washington in 1996, as I shall relate). Mydans writes:
“I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality,” said Mr. Lee, whose “Singapore model” of economic growth and tight social control made him one of the most influential political figures of Asia. “And I mean generally, every year, when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that’s life.”
In a long, unusually reflective interview last week, he talked about the aches and pains of age and the solace of meditation, about his struggle to build a thriving nation on this resource-poor island, and his concern that the next generation might take his achievements for granted and let them slip away.
And even more movingly, this:
Or, indeed, is anything? One day in 1996, the president of the Nixon Center, Dimitri Simes, called me at the Nixon library, where thanks to 37 I served 19 years as executive director, and said that the Center wanted to honor Lee at a gala banquet in Washington. I instantly agreed. Two years after Nixon's death, I couldn't imagine anything that would have pleased him more than our giving an award in his name to the living foreign leader he had most respected.
“I’m reaching 87, trying to keep fit, presenting a vigorous figure, and it’s an effort, and is it worth the effort?” he said. “I laugh at myself trying to keep a bold front. It’s become my habit. I just carry on.”
His most difficult moments come at the end of each day, he said, as he sits by the bedside of his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, 89, who has been unable to move or speak for more than two years. She had been by his side, a confidante and counselor, since they were law students in London.
“She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night,” he said. “She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favorite poems.” He opened a big spreadsheet to show his reading list, books by Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll as well as the sonnets of Shakespeare.
Lately, he said, he had been looking at Christian marriage vows and was drawn to the words: “To love, to hold and to cherish, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse till death do us part.”
“I told her, ‘I would try and keep you company for as long as I can.’ That’s life. She understood.” But he also said: “I’m not sure who’s going first, whether she or me.”
At night, hearing the sounds of his wife’s discomfort in the next room, he said, he calms himself with 20 minutes of meditation, reciting a mantra he was taught by a Christian friend: “Ma-Ra-Na-Tha.”
The phrase, which is Aramaic, comes at the end of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, and can be translated in several ways. Mr. Lee said that he was told it means “Come to me, O Lord Jesus,” and that although he is not a believer, he finds the sounds soothing.
“The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts,” he said. “A certain tranquillity settles over you. The day’s pressures and worries are pushed out. Then there’s less problem sleeping.”
He brushed aside the words of a prominent Singaporean writer and social critic, Catherine Lim, who described him as having “an authoritarian, no-nonsense manner that has little use for sentiment.”
“She’s a novelist!” he cried. “Therefore, she simplifies a person’s character,” making what he called a “graphic caricature of me.” “But is anybody that simple or simplistic?”
And yet as Mydans suggests, Lee isn't universally admired. Among his angriest critics was the late Bill Safire, Nixon's speechwriter and later a Times columnist. If Safire had read Nixon's measured assessment of the former prime minister, it hadn't made much of an impression. When he learned of our plans, he used his column to lash out at us for making money by licking the boots of a tinpot tyrant. He called on Nixon's friends to boycott the event.
His criticism was absurdly hyperbolic. Lee isn't perfect, but he's no Castro, Noriega, or Pinochet. Why Safire wouldn't defer to what the late president's wishes would have been in the matter, no one can say.
Besides all that, it wasn't ideal for a nonprofit organization to have a big foot columnist kick its major annual fundraising event around. By and large we depended on naturally cautious corporate contributors. Simes was never one to shrink from a fight, and I still wasn't all that far along in the turn-the-other-cheek department. He suggested that we co-sign a letter to the Times which he wrote and which was published on Oct. 23:
In response, Safire denounced Simes and me twice more in the Times. He called us "foundationiks." The Russian-born Simes, whose parents defended Soviet refuseniks in Moscow courts, got the sneering hint. Safire also lined up Nixon's daughters to co-sign a letter to the editor repudiating us, which made a total of four times our apostasy made news in the paper of record.
It is ironic that William Safire in his Oct. 21 column should call on ''all good Nixonites'' to abstain from participation in an event in honor of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, whom President Richard M. Nixon called a man of greatness.
The Nixon Center's directors, when they chose Mr. Lee for the 1996 Architect of the New Century Award, were aware that Singapore is run differently from the United States. But they also knew that under Mr. Lee's leadership, Singapore became, next to Japan, the most prosperous nation in Asia and has remained a staunch ally of the United States.
Contrary to Mr. Safire, there is nothing ''tinpot'' about Mr. Lee. He is not a ''tyrant''; Singapore is ruled by law. Singapore's formula for prosperity and harmony is not right for the United States, but there is something bigoted in Mr. Safire's suggestion that anyone who does not walk in lockstep with American political and social fashion should be denied our respect.
Lee's $1,000-a-plate dinner was a runaway success notwithstanding. He gave the finest tribute to Nixon I ever heard from a library or Center speaker, calling him "one of America’s ablest presidents after World War II, one whose vision and global grasp matched America's global reach."
Soon enough, the foundationiks were wishing the able Nixon were still around to advise them on strategy and tactics. That Christmas and into the following spring, we survived an attempted putsch by the Nixon family, which occurred because my reading of Nixon's will (he had also selected me as co-executor of his estate) differed from theirs when it came to the sums of money they would receive. The family controlled the library at that point, which made the situation especially awkward. With the help of the pivoting Eisenhowers, in May 1997 we created an independent board in Yorba Linda that enabled us to operate the private presidential library and museum in a somewhat less chaotic environment.
The family split became public in 2002 during another struggle over the millions Nixon's friend Bebe Rebozo had left to the Nixon foundation, where the Cox family saw an opportunity to modify or reverse our governance reforms. That March, the Times was heard from again in an article in which I also featured as villain. The reporter, James Sterngold, seemed to take special pains to accommodate the views and interests of two former Nixon White House staffers, certain Nixon family members, and a scholar who had good cause to be hostile to Nixon library management.
The foundationiks withstood all that, too, including the widely publicized lie that Rebozo had said he didn't trust me with his money. We completed our work of expanding the facility with a new $13.5 million wing, securing the foundation endowment, and, in 2007, handing the library over to the federal government.
I never spoke to Safire, nor felt his ire, again. We were, however, in church together in 2003 at historic Christ Church in Alexandria. Ron Ziegler's widow, Nancy, asked me to be one of the late White House press secretary's eulogists. Ziegler, whose diligent service to Nixon has so far been underrated by history, never fully recovered from the trauma of Watergate (although he was never accused of any wrongdoing). I traced Nixon's and his own achievements and said:
Despite all that, the years that followed were not easy for the president and Ron, for Pat and Nancy, for their colleagues and their families.Such encomiums notwithstanding -- as a churchnik in training, I eulogized several other distinguished Nixon alums as well -- Watergate's walking wounded nursed resentments and ambitions that I didn't always fully appreciate. At the Nixon foundation and Center, former Nixon chief of staff Kathy O'Connor (who was holding his hand when he died), Simes, and I assumed our job was to tell Nixon's story as best we could, promoting the peacemaking positive, contextualizing the Watergate negative, and identifying a set of pragmatic policy and political principles that had worked for him, might work for others, and might thus comprise a vital aspect of his legacy.
It wasn't just the accusations of scandal and the threat of impeachment. More recent events have shown that presidents can survive these things without seeming to sacrifice any respectability.
In 1974, our nation needed scapegoats for the trauma of Vietnam. The legacies of President Nixon and his colleagues will be hostages of history as long as that war is debated, as long as its wounds sting us.
But that wasn’t the view of all in Nixon's Watergate-era cohort nor some members of Nixon's family. “The legacy is the family,” Ed Cox, Tricia's husband, liked to say. Others have been forceful in enunciating the view that Nixon's legacy resides with the disgraced Bob Haldeman's proteges. Kathy and I, who served Nixon and his library for a combined total of 60 years, were just johnnies-come-lately, as one family member called us, who had hijacked their birthright.
The Nixon family's special deference to ex-aide Safire was understandable, since he was one of their few media friends. Not long before the Lee dinner, Tricia had pressured me to get his approval about the theme and speaker list for a conference we were contemplating about Sino-U.S. relations. When I said that his views on China, as on Lee Kuan Yew, were contrary to her father’s, she said, “My father’s dead.” I wish Safire, who died a year ago, had lived to see tomorrow's New York state primary. Tricia's son, Christopher, is running for the House. I would like to have seen what he would have written about it.
Whether or not the seemingly amiable younger Cox prevails in his contentious race in the first congressional district, Nixon has already had a remarkable impact on New York politics this year, especially for someone who's been gone since 1994. As state GOP chairman, Ed Cox has repeatedly applied and invoked Nixon's hard-learned doctrine of political life as a fiery trial. Because Cox's father-in-law was not as tough as he sometimes acted, he made a fetish of crisis to steel himself for survival and success in a harsh vocation to which he was intellectually but not temperamentally suited.
Poignantly and knowingly, when Julie Eisenhower wrote to him on Aug. 6, 1974 to urge him to delay his resignation, she said, "Go through the fire a little bit longer." And so as New York's leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rick Lazio, struggled against a Tea Party insurgent in recent weeks, Cox vouched for him by saying that he had "gone through the fire." Cox should know. He ignited it himself by recruiting and backing yet another Lazio rival earlier in the year. When Cox's plan failed and reporters asked if he would resign, he said, "I am not going to resign. We are now battle hardened." We singed ex-foundationiks are, too, thanks in large part to Cox and his family, for which, in a churchnik kind of way, we owe thanks.