Whatever else you might say about Richard Nixon—and you might say a lot—the man knew how to write a memo. He wrote an untold number in the twenty years between his resignation from the Presidency, forty years ago this week, and his death, on April 22, 1994, at the age of eighty-one. He wrote memos to his successors, to their White House aides, and to his designated political heirs—memos on foreign policy and press strategy, memos of political pre- and post-game analysis. He wrote serious-minded memos, ingratiating memos, and incendiary memos. (In the run-up to the 1992 Presidential election, Nixon sent a long and vehement memo to dozens of foreign-policy mandarins, attacking President George Bush’s support for democracy in Russia as “pathetically inadequate.”) He wrote secret memos—as well as nominally secret memos he intended to be leaked, so that he could be caught, time and again, in the act of offering wise counsel to Presidents and all the Presidents’ men.
This, of course, was the point: not merely to influence events but to be seen as influencing them. The flurry of memoranda was part of Nixon’s rolling campaign for redemption and, not least, relevance. The former will always elude Nixon, but he needn’t have worried so much about the latter. Twenty-first-century Republicans (with a touch of self-regard) trace their genealogy to Ronald Reagan, but, if you squint at just about any of them—from “establishment” figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to Tea Party irregulars like Senator Ted Cruz—you will see a strong familial resemblance to Nixon. Nixon’s internationalism is of no interest to them now; his domestic achievements are overlooked (Supplemental Security Income, or S.S.I.) or disowned (the E.P.A.), but today’s Republicans were weaned on Nixon’s sour brand of politics: the politics of resentment. Which makes his influence on the party every bit as profound, in its way, as Reagan’s.