On the morning of his resignation, as Nixon spoke to White House staffers and cabinet secretaries in the East Room of the White House, he cautioned those assembled about giving in to a hatred for those opponents who had brought him down. "Always remember," he admonished, "others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself." Nixon learned that lesson only after he had destroyed his own presidency. But his observation about hatred is important to remember when attempting an objective and fair assessment of the Nixon years.
His immediate place in history, of course, reflected the feelings of the Watergate era. He resigned office with the lowest public approval rates of any president since polls had begun to be taken. In all the surveys of historians, presidential scholars, and the public since, his administration has ranked at or near the bottom, down with Harding, Grant, Andrew Johnson, and Buchanan.
Nixon pursued innovative policies. Yet an opening to China and détente with the Soviets would certainly have been proposed by other presidents—possibly earlier than the 1970s—if Nixon and the political forces he represented had not fought these initiatives so strongly in prior decades. His constitutional confrontations with Congress were counterproductive and unnecessary, and his assertions of power were checked by the courts. Congress later placed new restrictions on many presidential prerogatives, and the little gain Nixon made in controlling policy was more than offset by new restrictions on authority delegated to the executive branch by Congress. In the aftermath of Nixon's administration, President Ford referred to the "imperial presidency" of the Nixon years as having been transformed into the "imperiled presidency" of the post-Watergate era. Reports both of the swollen powers of the presidency and of its sudden shrinkage were greatly exaggerated. Viewed from the present perspective, it is difficult to conclude that the disruptions of the Nixon years caused permanent damage to the presidency.
The real legacy of the Nixon administration was the introduction of a paranoid style of politics that viewed the struggle for power as a form of warfare against enemies. It countenanced the use of dirty tactics on a scale and magnitude not previously accepted (if one excludes the excesses of local party organizations), especially since these operations were run directly out of the White House and involved the domestic and national security agencies.
The public revelations about Watergate contributed to the steep decline of public confidence in political institutions. Subsequent presidents entered office with lower rates of public approval, suffered steeper declines, and bottomed out at levels approaching Nixon's lows.
The Nixon administration opened the "gates": Lancegate, involving President Carter's OMB director; Koreagate, involving the bribery of members of Congress; Debategate, dealing with the transfer of Carter White House documents to the Reagan camp prior to the national debates between the two presidential contenders in 1980; and Contragate, dealing with an illegal diversion of funds from an arms sale to Iran, in order to aid the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986. In each case the Washington press corps treated the scandal as another Watergate; in each case a beleaguered administration handled matters ineptly, attempting to minimize the issue and contain it. In each incident new revelations and leaks whetted the appetite of the press for more, until eventually heads rolled and reputations were ruined. With each event, confidence in presidents and their aides diminished, and the impression grew that "they all do it." The presentation of scandal and corruption—whether serious or frivolous—had become a major media industry.
A jaded Washington community might even be prepared for a resurrection of the Nixon presidency. A revisionist interpretation would focus on Nixon's policies and applaud his constitutional struggles with Congress, seeing them as a prescient understanding of how obsolete the American system of separated institutions checking and balancing each other had become. It would minimize the dirty tricks, placing them in the context of abuses committed by other presidents. It would see Nixon as a tragic figure, too preoccupied by matters of state to pay attention to the well-meaning transgressions of his aides and too loyal to them to protect his own presidency. His would be the sin of loyalty to his men. In short, it would follow the general lines of Nixon's own subsequent defense of his conduct. But it would be wrong.
After his resignation Nixon attempted to restore his reputation as a statesman. From his home in Park Ridge, New Jersey, he wrote his memoirs and six more books, most of them best-sellers, including several volumes on foreign affairs. Of these, the most influential were Real Peace (1983), which focused on relations with the Soviet Union and defended his own approach to détente, and In the Arena (1991), which summed up the meaning of his life in politics and lauded those who entered the arena to struggle for their beliefs rather than those who stayed on the sidelines or shied from conflict. He was treated respectfully and even admiringly as an elder statesman on his visits to the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and more than a score of other nations.
Nixon's friends raised $21 million to build the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace at Yorba Linda, California, with Nixon himself contributing $2 million. The library, built entirely with private funds, contains exhibits about the Nixon presidency, but the Nixon papers themselves are kept by the National Archives in its own warehouse. The former president sued to keep 150,000 pages of papers away from presidential scholars.
Nixon suffered a massive stroke in April 1994 and was taken to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. According to his living will, he asked for no extraordinary life support measures. He died at 9:08 P.M. , 22 April 1994. In a televised ceremony attended by dignitaries and notables from all over the world, President Bill Clinton expressed the sentiments of much of the nation, particularly editorialists and columnists from the media that Nixon had always despised, when he chose to dwell on Nixon's great positive accomplishments rather than focusing on his unprecedented constitutional crimes.