Nixon's final campaign: ensuring a favorable mention in history

December 15, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Mr. West covers national politics for The Sun.

NIXON: RUIN AND RECOVERY

1973-1990.

Stephen E. Ambrose.

Simon & Schuster.

667 pages. $27.95. A few years back, Richard M. Nixon invited me to dinner, along with several of my colleagues. The invitation had nothing to do with our less-than-dazzling qualities as eating companions. But it had everything to do with Mr. Nixon's final -- and, in many ways, most audacious -- campaign of all: to redeem himself and his reputation in the eyes of history.

During the 1980s, Mr. Nixon began cultivating younger reporters whose careers began too late for them to have covered his presidency, who had never even met him. In "Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990," the very useful conclusion to his three-volume Nixon biography, historian Stephen E. Ambrose accurately describes the reporters' fascination at spending an evening, in small groups, at Mr. Nixon's home in Saddle River, N.J., sipping his vintage Bordeaux and listening to him discuss the state of the world and American politics. (Mr. Ambrose neglected to mention the stretch limousines, complete with color TV, rented by Mr. Nixon to ferry the dinner guests between the airport and his house).

What did we get from these off-the-record encounters? A name to drop, of course. No political reporter worth his expense account would pass up a chance to spend an evening with the most compelling and ubiquitous American politician of our time. But otherwise, there was very little in it, if my experience is any guide.

There was no "news" in what Mr. Nixon had to say. His political analysis merely reflected conventional wisdom. We did earn a place on the Nixon mailing list, which brings regular updates on the former president's activities, speeches, articles and, now, the Nixon library newsletter, with its selection of gift shop items that can be ordered by mail as presents for the holidays.

One of our dinner companions that night, Strobe Talbott of Time magazine, did do somewhat better. Months later, he obtained an exclusive interview and a copy of a 26-page memo to then-President Ronald Reagan (leaked, Mr. Ambrose hints, by Mr. Nixon himself) concerning Mr. Nixon's meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Courting journalists was one small element of Richard Nixon's single-minded, and largely successful, crusade to remake himself in the aftermath of Watergate. The most valuable part of Mr. Ambrose's concluding volume, which deals mainly with the Watergate cover-up and Mr. Nixon's resignation, is the portion that covers Mr. Nixon's efforts to rewrite history. The author, a professor at the University of New Orleans and an editor of the Eisenhower papers, dissects the "carefully crafted campaign" through which Mr. Nixon restored his public standing by "hard work, willpower, luck, brass and political skill."

Mr. Nixon's motives were obvious. He was obsessed with the way he would be perceived by history and, in Mr. Nixon's view, that depended on who was doing the writing. If he cast his net widely enough, perhaps some of those he met in the final years of his life might play a bit part in scripting history, or at least its first draft. "You'll be here in the year 2000," he told a questioner during his 1978 tour of France. "We'll see how I'm regarded then."

It is not inconceivable that Mr. Nixon, 78, will be around then, too. If so, he'll undoubtedly be regarded much as he is today -- as a respected senior statesman. The sordid details of Watergate, particularly his sleazy attempts to deny involvement in the cover-up that followed, will have receded even further into the past. By then, many, if not most, Americans may well have come to regard Watergate as an aberrant relic of a bygone era, an overly moralistic response to an ordinary bit of political skulduggery, blown far out of proportion by an overly aggressive press.

To this thinking, Mr. Ambrose's work provides a valuable antidote, as well as a first answer to the question whether Mr. Nixon will succeed in his fight for historical redemption.

His biographer sees the best and the worst in his subject. Mr. Ambrose describes his own, personal odyssey from Nixon hater to, if not Nixon admirer, at least to one who has a feeling of genuine admiration, if not affection, for him. His work is exceedingly generous, sometimes overly so, to Mr. Nixon. It credits him

with almost singlehandedly ending the Vietnam War and proposing solutions to difficult problems facing the country (welfare, national health insurance) and the world (the Middle East) that have yet to be improved upon in the 17 years since he left the White House.

Mr. Ambrose writes fondly of Mr. Nixon as a person, admiring his refusal to give up and his devotion to his family (while also providing withering detail of how he systematically threw loyal aides overboard, in an increasingly desperate effort to save his own skin).

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