It describes a leader armed with the charisma, intelligence and inclination to divide America, where talent at polarizing leads to power, fame and riches. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were beloved and despised. So were Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Today, Donald Trump polarizes, inspiring tension and loud fun at family dinners across America. Trump will speak Thursday at Air Force Academy’s graduation.
Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon reigned as America’s polarizer in chief, displaying his expertise with an aggressive and, yes, polarizing commencement address at the academy on June 4, 1969.
Speaking in a calm voice, wearing a gray silk suit, hands still, jaw and shoulders jutting forward to emphasize a point, he praised his followers and ridiculed his critics. Those who opposed him, the president said in his 25-minute speech, were cowardly, dangerous and unworthy of their American heritage.
It was a bold message spoken in a time of turmoil. The Vietnam War inspired America’s young (and old) to question the virtue and wisdom of their leaders. In the two weeks before Nixon spoke on a sunny, breezy morning at Falcon Stadium, 526 Americans died in Vietnam.
Nixon supported a new antiballistic missile system, which inspired full-page opposition newspaper ads that read, “From the people who brought you Vietnam — the antiballistic missile system.”
The president paid attention to every detail. He saw the ads.
“On the home front,” Nixon said to AFA’s Class of 1969, “you are under attack from those who question the need for a strong national defense. … It is open season on the armed forces.
“Skeptics,” he said, “… see a danger in the power of the defenders.” Those skeptics had no “vision.” They would have “counted the costs” and remained in England instead of sailing to America. They would “turn away from American greatness.”
But the graduates sitting before Nixon were superior to those skeptics.
“Every member of this graduating class is … an idealist,” he said.
Far from the academy, the speech earned acclaim and scorn. Nixon, wrote a Time magazine columnist, showed “his worst side — the side that earned him the name ‘Tricky Dicky.’” The columnist reported a “few” of Nixon’s staff described his word choice as “unfortunate.” When Nixon read the column, he commanded his entire staff to be questioned.
Wally Moorhead sat among his graduating classmates that June morning. To his ears, the president was speaking truth. During Moorhead’s years at the academy, he watched the Vietnam War produce a canyon of strife in America. He listened to academy grads who returned to campus to reveal the reality of serving in Vietnam.
He knew what was ahead.
Moorhead, a Colorado Springs resident, served 38 years in the Air Force, retiring in 2006 as a three-star lieutenant general. He served two perilous tours as a pilot in Vietnam.
“I’m 23 years old,” Moorhead said. “He’s the president of the United States, and he seems on the top of the food chain for me. I really was not paying much attention to his politics and everything.”
He was paying attention to Nixon’s encouragement and warning.
“He said this is going to be hard because the nation is not happy with what you’re going to do. You won’t be treated fairly. … You’re about to serve in a tough time. Stay the course, and thanks for what you’re doing.”
The president’s trip to Colorado Springs was brief and eventful. He landed, along with his family, at 5:15 the evening before his speech at Peterson Air Force Base. His flight arrived two hours late, and his family quickly waved at a crowd of 4,000 before flying away via helicopter.
Frank Ladwig, aviation director at Peterson, spent dozens of hours preparing for the president’s few minutes.
“You hope that it’s tomorrow,” Ladwig told a Gazette reporter, “when it’s all over.”
The helicopter took the Nixons to The Broadmoor hotel’s polo field. Nixon spent a restful night at the hotel, although it was not a calm night for security. Vandals busted into the hotel’s International Center and damaged 35 exhibits from the Colorado Dental Association. Authorities said they did not have the “slightest idea” who was responsible.
The Nixons departed The Broadmoor at 8:39 the next morning, taking a helicopter to the academy, where they enjoyed a brisk 35-minute tour. Organist J. Roger Boyd played Purcell’s “Voluntary in D” as Nixon entered the Cadet Chapel.
Nixon arrived at Falcon Stadium at 9:40, delivered his speech and by 11:42 returned to Peterson and boarded Air Force One for a flight to San Clemente, Calif., his Western headquarters. The takeoff was delayed for a few frantic moments after Peterson workers spotted an object at the end of the airstrip.
It was a large piece of tar paper.
The Air Force speech offered a glimpse at Nixon’s essence. He escaped from Southern California poverty because of brilliance and bluntness. He was ridiculed by his critics. He ridiculed them right back. This fire explains his rise.
And his fall.
The speech offered a strong hint of his future. Nixon saw his opponents as enemies of America, and as president oversaw a crusade against those sinister “skeptics.”
This us vs. them crusade led to the Watergate scandal and ruin. On Aug. 9, 1974, little more than 62 months after speaking to a packed house at Falcon Stadium, Nixon became the only president to resign. He departed the White House in a helicopter, soaring away to long exile.
In 1978, I was home from college, eating with my family. Dad, a staunch Nixon supporter, enjoyed making announcements at the dinner table.
“I’m going out tonight to buy Nixon’s autobiography,” he said in his booming voice.
Mom, never a Nixon fan, instantly stopped eating. She believed my father worthy of ruling the entire world, with the notable exception of the house where we ate.
“No, you will not,” she said, just as loudly. “That book never will arrive in my home.”
Dad laughed. Yes, I will. Mom responded with a knowing smile. No, you won’t.
That autobiography, written by a towering and polarizing American, never arrived at mom’s cozy brick house in south Denver.