Debater Nixon Scores Another point zTC

JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

March 21, 1992|By JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

Of our four living ex-presidents, Richard M. Nixon is first inpoint of service and last in the hearts of his countrymen. The enduring animus toward the most enduring political figure of the last half-century has not, however, cast him into oblivion.

Since he left office in disgrace 19 years ago, he has writteseven books, all of them constituting a running commentary on foreign affairs, plus a monumental autobiography that easily overshadows the reminiscences of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan has yet to produce.

Indeed, the Nixon autobiography is an overlooked piece oAmericana that in future years may take its place next to Ulysses S. Grant's engrossing story of his life.

Nixon-haters, of which there are legions, usually chalk up the former president's literary outpourings to a desperate effort to // rehabilitate himself in the eyes of his contemporaries and in the judgment of history. They also see it as a bit of money-grubbing by a pariah cashing in on his notoriety.

There is some of all of this in what Mr. Nixon has done and is doing as he edges toward the age of 80. But to cast his work strictly in those limited terms misses both the brilliance and the obsessive qualities of the man. He not only fancies himself an expert on foreign policy; he is an expert on the subject, a man more highly respected outside than inside his own country.

It was, however, in Washington where Mr. Nixon set tongues clucking this month with some cogent criticism of Bush administration niggardliness on aid to the former Soviet Union and the absence of commentary on this subject by Democratic presidential candidates.

Commentators, especially those with short memories, marveled at this elderly politician's ability to speak without notes, without a TelePrompTer, without even a lectern, with only a microphone on a pole before him, and deliver a persuasive, organized, pungently expressed address. He has done so before -- and often.

During the speech that brought him once again to national attention (and promoted his new book, "Seize the Moment: America's Challenge in a One-Superpower World"), Mr. Nixon permitted himself one autobiographical reference.

He reminded his audience that Harry Truman, despite bleak prospects for his re-election, proposed aid to Greece and Turkey as the 1948 campaign approached and that he -- Richard Nixon, conservative Republican -- had supported that decision.

Of course, he had plenty of nasty contemporaneous things to say about Harry Truman. But his reference to his foreign aid vote was Mr. Nixon's way of saying he was an internationalist from the beginning and was instrumental in holding the GOP unflinchingly to this course until "the new isolationism" of Pat Buchanan came to the fore.

From Vandenberg through Eisenhower to Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush, the emergence of the Republican Party from its 1930s isolationist myopia has been one of the success stories of our time. The party has abandoned protectionism as well, leaving the Democrats to swing onto this dubious path.

If Americans can stand to contemplate Mr. Nixon as one of the pre-eminent internationalists of our time, they will better understand why he could be both a "Who Lost China?" hard-liner, a kitchen debater with Nikita Khrushchev and a creative promoter of detente during his years in the White House.

In every instance, he was pursuing an activist, interventionist, role for the United States. And he was ready at all times to belly up to the card table to play with the big boys.

His failure to get out of Vietnam because of his fear of a dishonorable peace tends to overshadow his masterful dealing with a Social Democratic government in West Germany that led to a lessening of tension and the landmark Four-Power Agreement on Berlin.

His agreement to limit strategic nuclear weaponry and render anti-missile defenses virtually meaningless set the stage for later arms control measures before the collapse of the Soviet empire. His achievements were so well appreciated in the Kremlin, this despite Mr. Nixon's famous opening to China, that when Watergate came along the Russians considered it a hard-liner coup d'etat.

Future historians, I suspect, will give Mr. Nixon high marks noonly for his foreign policy but for his liberal -- repeat liberal -- social agenda implementing the Johnson Great Society. His funding for social programs infuriates Reaganites to this day.

Like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon is enormously complicated and engrossing. He is domineering yet tortured by self-doubt; crude yet intellectually fastidious. He will fascinate Americans long after most other late 20th century presidents have become names on a list.

Joseph R. L. Sterne is editor of The Sun's editorial pages.

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