Even 3-hour PBS look at Richard Nixon fails to provide definitive portrait

October 15, 1990|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

Pick virtually any adjective that is used to describe the qualities of a person, and odds are it correctly applies to Richard Nixon.

And that fact, which emerges in the three-hour PBS documentary "Nixon," says much about the contradictory nature of this fascinating character who bestrode the American political stage for a quarter century and, even now, more than 15 years after what appeared to be his final exit, still peeks in from the wings.

"Nixon," which is running under the American Experience umbrella and will be on Maryland Public Television (channels 22 and 67) at 8 o'clock, is actually three one-hour films, each produced separately.

"The Quest" begins with his birth in Yorba Linda, Calif., painting a picture of a smart, ambitious, disciplined boy who seemed determined to do what he could to make something of himself so he could ease the grief his parents felt over the tuberculosis deaths of two of his brothers.

His military career was undistinguished apart from his poker winnings, which he sent home. And, though his early victorious political campaigns that got him to the House in 1946 and the Senate two years later are usually dismissed as red-baiting, this account shows that Nixon also projected a distinct class appeal, the blue-collar working man up against the wealthy, liberal elite.

Combine that with his explanation for using the red-baiting tactics, that you did whatever was needed to win, and you find the seeds of his victories and his downfall.

The first hour tells of his years as vice president, his defeat in 1960 in a campaign that further embittered him, and his stinging rejection in 1962 when he ran for governor of California.

The second hour, "Triumph," documents his comeback in the 1960s, his close race with Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and his triumphant foreign policy successes even as he was plagued by the Vietnam war and the divisions it rent in the nation.

In one of the three hours' most chilling moments, his former aide Chuck Colson remembers watching the 1972 election returns with Nixon and H.R. Haldeman. It was the biggest electoral victory in history, yet Colson remembers an atmosphere of depression in the room.

The third hour, "The Fall," is a haunting evocation of the Watergate years. With the cooperation of former domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman, as well as Colson, Egil Krogh, John DTC Dean and a few other administration officials, this documentary makes clear just how severe Nixon's transgressions were, how he brought the coverup into the White House from the early days after the break-in and kept his hand in its most deceitful acts.

It is too soon for any work, even one as ambitious as "Nixon," to give a definitive portrait of this man.

"The judgment of history depends on who writes it," Nixon said on the day he left office. And one of the continuing tragedies of Nixon is that he and too many of his associates are still trying to insure that it is written their way. There is no mention of Watergate in Nixon's new library. Neither he, nor Haldeman, nor many others participate in works like this one. Still others, like John Mitchell, have taken their stories to the grave.

So perhaps even history will never get a clear picture of this man.

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