The Real Richard Nixon

GARRY WILLS

December 23, 1992|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- Repeatedly, just when Richard Nixon seems ready to mount up to a position of restored reputation and honor, an older self comes scampering out of the gutter to remind us of his real nature. The latest such betrayal of Richard Nixon by Richard Nixon was revealed by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker.

What earned headlines was the news that Mr. Nixon commissioned E. Howard Hunt -- working through Charles Colson -- to obstruct justice for political ends when Gov. George Wallace was shot. Mr. Nixon wanted to remove real evidence from the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin, and substitute fake evidence that would implicate Bremer in the McGovern campaign.

This was a breathtakingly silly yet potentially very baneful attempt. To gain a momentary advantage over a political opponent Mr. Nixon would poison the wells of an investigation into a real crime. He was uninterested in any possibility that a conspiracy might go undetected because of his act. It is fairly certain that there was no such conspiracy, but neither Mr. Nixon or anyone else could know that in the first moments after the attempted murder.

Had he succeeded, Mr. Nixon would have fed every conspiracy fantasy in every other successful or attempted assassination. If the government could do this, what would it not do to use killings and their treatment for political advantage?

Mr. Hersh has other revelations to make, taken from unreleased Nixon tapes. They show the level of petty scheming, the mean and paranoid panic over staying in power, that informed thousands of hours of conversation between President Nixon and his minions.

Mr. Hersh clears Mr. Nixon of foreknowledge of the Watergate break-in. But the atmosphere of lawlessness that led to that was clearly bred in the Oval Office itself, where the president plotted against his enemies, showing no inhibition about breaking the law or transgressing common decency.

Those who surrounded Mr. Nixon had to adopt his attitude to stay influential with him. Thus Alexander Haig paid no attention to proper or even legal proceedings when he got information from the Internal Revenue Service to protect Mr. Nixon's friend Bebe Rebozo.

A typical sequence involved Al Capp, the comic-strip artist whose frenzy against war protesters had become a consuming passion. Mr. Nixon cultivated the cartoonist, trying to get him to run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. There was no illusion that Capp could win -- Mr. Nixon just wanted him to damage Senator Kennedy with his increasingly erratic savageness.

Then Capp was indicted for sexual assault. First President Nixon tried to fix the case, again through Mr. Colson, sending a White House emissary to persuade the authorities not to prosecute Capp. When that failed, Mr. Nixon had to distance himself from the cartoonist. The bomb he meant to throw at Senator Kennedy had exploded, blowing itself up. Mr. Nixon moved on.

The tapes already released had made it clear that it was a dangerous and demeaning thing to be Richard Nixon's friend. The president loved to rough up old associates when talking to others, trying to impress them with his toughness. Mr. Hersh's revelations suggest that ''we ain't seen nothing yet.''

Less than 2 percent of the Nixon tapes have been released -- thanks to a frantic effort, through his lawyers, to regain the tapes or suppress them. Mr. Hersh was leaked to because some people at the National Archives are sickened by the success the former president has so far had in obstructing people's access to a system they paid for while Mr. Nixon was supposed to be engaged in their official business.

Some will keep trying to rehabilitate Mr. Nixon. And I have to admit that he did some good things. After all, he never threw his mother to the wolves -- but only because he never felt he had to.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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