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Open letter to Duke Law: Respect Richard Nixon and restore his portrait

By John T. Plecnik
web posted April 25, 2005

Much to the chagrin of my elite and oh, so liberal law school, the most famous alum to take a degree from the Duke University School of Law is none other than President Richard M. Nixon (Class of 1937). On a side note, some would say that Kenneth Starr (Class of 1973) is the runner-up. Regardless, our legendary alum served as a two-term congressman, senator, two-term Vice-President and two-term President. Oh, and he lost a gubernatorial and presidential race…and had to resign from the presidency. But, that's American history.

Simply put, Nixon loved Duke, but Duke never loved Nixon. As President, the man helped to connect the United States and Duke University with China. He established a scholarship at the law school and hosted a class reunion in the White House. But, there was to be no honorary doctorate for the Republican politician. There was no respect for the enormous influence of an undeniably historic, but conservative figure. Despite Nixon's wishes to place his presidential library at Duke University, the school denied him a final opportunity to give back to the institution he loved. To their credit, the law faculty did support this initiative, but others overruled them.

Only one relic remained to remind us of the sole Dukie to take the White House. A single portrait, one of two made during Nixon's presidency, was given to the law school in 1969. It hung in Duke Law's courtroom, but disappeared during Watergate. Long afterward, it was found above the ceiling tiles of the same room. Countless rumors circulate as to who hid the picture. Some say that famed constitutional law scholar William W. Van Alstyne, then a professor at Duke Law, was responsible. But, such silly speculation is probably just a testament to both men's legends.

After rediscovering the portrait, Duke Law hid Nixon's image in the registrar's office, citing a fear of vandalism. And, after a brief debut in the law library, the portrait was moved to congress, where it supposedly hangs in some office to this very day. Frankly, Dukies, Republicans and yes, Americans should be outraged by the law school's treatment of our nation's 37th president. Where is his memorial? Where is our acknowledgement of the fact that a Blue Devil led the free world? Certainly, Nixon was far from perfect, but the man improved our relations with the Soviet Union, opened relations with China and ended the military draft. He made history. If anything, Watergate and the landmark case of United States v. Nixon only made his terms in the White House more relevant to the study of law.

Perhaps I'm being naïve, but I refuse to believe that my liberal classmates and professors have so little restraint that the mere sight of a Republican President's portrait would drive them to bouts of temporary insanity. I refuse to believe that a class of valedictorians, Fulbright Scholars and LSAT instructors would instinctively steal or destroy a piece of history. Even so, the portrait has yet to be returned. It would be unreasonable to suggest that the law school is still concerned with the potential for vandalism. Rather, the likely answer is far simpler and all-to-common. Surprise, surprise, liberal bias on campus doesn't end with undergrad.

Ranked with Harvard and Yale as one of America's most liberal law schools, Duke is embarrassed of producing a Republican President. Oh, how they wish they could trade for Yale Law's Bill and Hillary Clinton, Columbia's activist, rock star judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or even Northwestern's Jerry Springer. Intentionally or otherwise, the absence of a tribute to Nixon—the absence of his portrait—has sent a message: If I or another conservative classmate go on to be President of the United States, Duke Law will be ashamed of us, too.

When I first came to the South's most elite university, I searched in vain for the Duke Law Republicans. The group's membership had long since graduated with no underclassmen to take their place. I can still remember how one, fairly moderate professor mused that he would miss the Republicans' oft-remarkable struggle to restore Nixon's portrait to the law school. I say, with the recent rebirth of the group, the time has come to demand that his portrait be returned. 1L Ryan Higgins, Co-Chair of the Duke Law Republicans, concurs. "I am astonished by the absence of his portrait as well as the general absence of any reference to our 37th president in law school literature. Richard Nixon is without a doubt the most accomplished and influential of our alumni," said Higgins. "This man was a giant! One can only conclude that the continued absence of the portrait is fueled largely by personal ideology. Nixon's image must be restored."

Though liberal bias may prevent Duke from fully acknowledging its greatest alum, the president never held a grudge against his alma mater. Through this undying loyalty, Nixon demonstrated that he possessed a greater moral character—a greater honesty—than his professors and their successors, who continually cite Nixon's "severe misdeeds" as an excuse to ignore his school pride and patriotism. To close, I'll join Nixon by saying, "And I always remember, that whatever I have done in the past, or may do in the future, Duke University is responsible in one way or another."

John T. Plecnik (JTP) is a 21-year-old law student at Duke University and a Featured Columnist at The Conservative Voice, Lincoln Tribune, a weekly newspaper in Lincolnton, N.C., and various other online and print publications. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Accounting with a Minor in Mythology and graduated summa cum laude, sharing the title of Valedictorian, from Belmont Abbey College. Email your comments to John at john.plecnik@law.duke.edu.


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