Forty years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and 20 years after he died, history still has not caught up to the real man, believes Richard Duchossois, chairman of Arlington International racetrack.
Duchossois, a major contributor to the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, said Friday his conviction that Nixon was an honest man, and a gifted one, has never wavered.
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"I just plain liked him," Duchossois said. "And I thought he was brilliant."
Never an intimate friend of Nixon's, Duchossois nevertheless had dinner at the Nixon White House several times and met him at least once after he was out of office.
Nixon, Duchossois said, always seemed to like people around him.
"I don't travel in political circles, so I assume I was asked because I was a donor," he said. Still, none of the White House dinners were fundraisers, and none were political, just interesting and congenial company.
Over time, he thinks, people will recognize that Nixon was "head and shoulders" above many of today's politicians and will grant him a place in history that isn't overshadowed by Watergate.
"He wasn't the only one who wasn't a Boy Scout," Duchossois says.
Duchossois was at the Economic Club of Chicago on the evening of April 26, 1988, as Nixon gave an incisive assessment of then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, warning the U.S. not to underestimate Gorbachev's iron will and his leadership abilities.
"He spoke for an hour and half and he never looked at a note," Duchossois recalled. "It was one of the best talks I've ever heard. There had to be a great deal to his character and his ability" to do that.
Afterward, Duchossois went up to shake the former president's hand. He no longer remembers what they said to each other, but he recalls the moment.
"He had a good strong grip," Duchossois said. "He looked you in the eye and he would talk to you in a regular conversation. He didn't put his arm around you and hug."
Duchossois met both President Bushes, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford while they were in office, and he met Jimmy Carter in his post-presidency. All were nice men, he said, and Reagan "probably made me feel the most comfortable," but it's Nixon's lingering reputation that bothers him the most.
"I think he got caught up in something he wished he hadn't," Duchossois said about Watergate. "He tried to defend himself, but once you do that, it becomes a slippery slope."
By August 1974, Duchossois agreed, Nixon had to resign. But that didn't erase all the good he had done, he argued.
"No, history hasn't been fair," Duchossois said. "He wasn't a dishonest man."