Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
It was Monday, July 25, when two-year-old Alexandria Hill was rushed to the hospital after sustaining a serious head trauma. In a coma and affixed to breathing machines, she died two days later -- another victim of President Richard Nixon's legacy.
Hill's father Joshua, a low-wage worker for Dominos Pizza, later told Austin ABC News affiliate KXAN-TV that he spent months worried about his daughter's well being in the hands of foster parents selected by the Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) division, after she was taken from his custody for the offense of smoking marijuana as she slept in an adjacent room.
"We never hurt our daughter," he said, choking back tears. "She was never sick, she was never in the hospital, and she never had any issues until she went into state care."
Three factors played a role in Alex being turned over to state custody: her mother's epilepsy and frequent seizures, her parents' pot use (which can actually help calm seizures), and her grandfather's status as a registered sex offender.
Thanks to this lethal intersection, little Alex was handed over to a woman who police now say murdered her.
As it happens, Alex passed away just weeks before the 39th anniversary of President Nixon's resignation, a grim milestone in American history forever attached to August 9, 1974.
Four years ahead of his presidency's last gasp, Nixon and his allies in Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, part of which mandates that marijuana be treated as a substance more dangerous than LSD and cocaine. With that Act, members of Congress sealed Alex Hill's fate and the fate of millions of other innocent Americans whose lives and families have been ripped apart by this law.
In my time as a journalist covering the drug war, I've been contacted by several dozen parents much like Joshua Hill, frantic after a minor pot bust resulted in Child Protective Services being dispatched to report on their capacity to raise children.
To someone ignorant of marijuana's otherwise minor inebriating effects, that might seem reasonable.
But to every parent who has written me in the utter depths of despair, "reasonable" is the last word they would use to describe the pain of having a child ripped from their care over a joint or a few roaches in the backyard ash tray.
In a gutwrenching twist of fate, Nixon indulged in his favorite vice on the last night of his presidency, drinking so much alcohol that he felt compelled to call Henry Kissinger in tears, slurring his words. Larry Eagleburger, a career diplomat and former Kissinger aide, listened in on the call and ultimately hung up in disgust, shocked at Nixon's demeanor. As Don Fulsom wrote in "Nixon's Darkest Secrets," the president was "out of control" and barely coherent that night, pleading with Kissinger, "Please don't ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong."
To make matters worse, Nixon was drinking while also ingesting Seconal, a barbiturate sedative, and Dilantin, an anti-epilepsy drug. Altogether, Nixon was regularly ingesting a truly lethal cocktail and not a soul knew it outside of the White House. That gave Kissinger the edge he needed. Fulsom adds that Nixon's greatest frenemy liked to parade the president's penchant for booze in front of his staff. "He would poke fun at 'my drunken friend' the way people joke about things that truly scare them," Kissinger historian Walter Isaacson wrote. "Kissinger used this to his advantage; he needed [Nixon's staff to support him and] would tell aides, because they alone knew, he was the one man who kept 'that drunken lunatic' from doing things that would 'blow up the world.'"
Hunter S. Thompson should be rolling over in his grave about now, if only Johnny Depp hadn't shot his ashes all over the Colorado countryside.
To this day, prescription pills, tobacco and alcohol are the most harmful drugs we know, but America continues to prosecute marijuana offenders to the fullest extent of the law in many jurisdictions.
We do this because President Nixon told us to, and every other president thereafter has followed in his footsteps.
Even Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, with their documented history smoking marijuana, have upheld this war on their fellow citizens.
Why did Nixon tell us to do this?
Because he hated hippie culture and recognized the threat it posed to his hold on power.
Modern America lives with Nixon's mendacious legacy, enforcing the drug prohibition on people like Joshua Hill.
Our laws require that students and families receiving public assistance be kicked off the taxpayer dime for drug offenses, largely due to the conservative fear that helping the afflicted is actually just supporting their drug habits and hastening the demise of whatever's left of the American Dream.
Until Americans demand, with a nearly unanimous voice, that our prohibitionist drug policy be toppled, we will continue to live with Nixon's brutal legacy, which is taking down one Alex Hill at a time.