Sunday, January 09, 2005

Happy Birthday

If one were to make a list of the ten most influential Americans of the 20th century, there is a good chance that two would have celebrated birthdays this weekend. I speak of none other than President Richard Milhouse Nixon and the King of Rock n' Roll, Elvis Presley. (Editor's note: if you never click on links, please click this one for a beautiful photo of the two in their only meeting.) Nixon would have been 92 on Sunday, and Elvis would have been 70 on Saturday.

Nixon and Elvis were perfect symbols of 20th century America. Neither was born into a position of power or prestige, just as their country was not considered a "superpower" at the time of their birth. Yet their innate abilities provided all they needed to quickly ascend to the top of their field. Nixon's brilliance and uncompromising work ethic had him elected to the second highest office in the land before his 40th birthday. Elvis was the brightest international star in music by his mid-20s. The decade both ascended, the 1950's, came shortly after America emerged from World War II as the indisputably most influential nation in the world.

Elvis and Nixon contributed to that influence. Nixon's crusade against communism helped keep America apace with the military might of the Soviet Union. Yet it was Elvis' field where America was the undisputed leader. In the 1950's the American entertainment industry had no counterpart in any other country. Elvis' music was heard, and his name was known, in every corner of the world. Like America, Elvis and Nixon suffered more than a few setbacks in the 1960's. Yet both made improbable comebacks in 1968.

However, like the nation both men loved, the 1970's were the nadir for these two heroes. The Watergate scandal destroyed Nixon's reputation and forced him to resign the presidency in 1974. Elvis fared little better, descending deeply into drug addiction. He died on the toilet at Graceland in 1977. It looked like both men were done.

Amazingly, both men began to rehabilitate themselves in the 1980's and 1990's. Nixon wrote deep and thoughtful books until his death by stroke in 1994 and Elvis posthumously released more wonderful music. Americans began to forgive Nixon and to deify Elvis.

In the 21st century, Elvis and Nixon provide a choice and a warning for the people of this wealthy and talented nation. Nixon's life teaches that great power begets great enemies, but that the greatest threat lie within. If Nixon had ignored his opponents and concentrated on pushing his agenda, Watergate never would have happened (and he still would have cruised to re-election). His paranoia over enemies that were his inferiors gave them the power to bring him down.

Elvis teaches the importance of self-control and restraint. He became such a huge star that he was able to construct a life where no one in his inner circle ever questioned his actions. Consequently, as his personal decisions descended into self destructive chaos, he had no one to ground him.

So happy birthday to two truly great Americans. No one predicted greatness from Yorba Linda, California in 1913 or Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935. Yet now we know. Our nation is great because it produces Nixons and Elvii.


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