The last new Nixon

William Safire

March 09, 1993|By William Safire

MY partisan days are over."

Coming from Richard Nixon, who has raised more partisan ire than any American public figure in the past half-century, that's a stunning statement.

Back in 1966, the year of his first comeback, reporters listening to his longheaded world views would narrow their eyes and wonder about the "new" Richard Nixon. I was present at the creation of his disarming and not defensive reply: "Of course there's a 'new' Nixon -- times change; there's a new America and a new world."

In 1993, at age 80, the American uniquely qualified to be foreign-policy elder statesman is renewing his role again. "There may be a need for a Vandenberg," he says, recalling the Republican senator whose name is still associated with bipartisanship in foreign policy.

He has just returned from a grueling two-week private trip to Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union. Yesterday, he was to respond to an invitation from President Clinton to report his findings and help educate his youthful successor on global power-playing.

Last Wednesday night at 9:40, the White House operator reached the former president in his New Jersey town house. The operator then could not find Mr. Clinton, and apologized; Mr. Nixon said, "I'll wait; he's a helluva lot busier than I am." When Mr. Clinton came on, they talked for nearly 40 minutes.

I tried to find out what was said in that call (recommended to Mr. Clinton by Bob Dole and Bob Strauss) and received a mock-glower: One does not reveal confidences with presidents. But Mr. Nixon returning from abroad always writes his thoughts and sticks to them. These are his central points:

1. Boris Yeltsin is not hard to read -- charismatic, refreshingly straightforward -- and if he were replaced, we would not likely get a better hope for democracy in Russia, only a worse one.

2. The reformers need help from Western executives in developing an entrepreneurial class to attract private investment. In next month's summit in Vancouver, Mr. Clinton should have specific ways "to put some meat on the table," as statesmen say, and Mr. Nixon has a few thoughts about that.

3. Our stakes in Russia's reform could not be higher, because Mr. Clinton's budget package would be a dead letter if Russian nationalists took over and our defense budget had to be increased.

Mr. Nixon is candid about his liking for Russians. "I'm a Russophile, but not a Commiephile."

He takes a visitor on a world tour. On Bosnia: "I'm more hawkish than Bush was. You cannot work out a settlement unless there is a correlation of forces -- the arms embargo was a mistake. Your colleague Gelb is right about that."

On China: "They can never hope to attract Taiwan if they stomp on democracy in Hong Kong. I'll tell them that in Beijing." Trade pressure for human rights? "It would be a mistake for us to weaken the private Chinese economy -- that's the greatest pressure for political reform, and the next generation is more Chinese than communist."

Japan: "It's really dumb for the Japanese to predicate help for Russia on four little islands."

American as world policeman: "Who the hell else do you want to lead the world -- China, Japan, Germany? The U.N.? Russia and all those republics could be lost to freedom if America abdicates leadership."

Mr. Clinton's call to arms? Looking out across a snowy landscape, Mr. Nixon gives an indirect reply: "By making freedom work here, we set a powerful example. We have to exercise leadership that makes the world respect us and build a society that makes the world admire us. You see misery in Moscow, but determination -- poor in goods, rich in spirit. That's the message to get across to kids these days. What a great chance for Clinton."

The 1996 campaign? Mr. Nixon, the old gleam in his eye, leans forward: "Republicans should forget about '96 and think about good candidates for '94 -- you can't win seven Senate seats with turkeys. In '66, two years after the Goldwater debacle, we . . . "

He catches himself.

"Nope. I don't want to reduce my effectiveness in foreign affairs. My partisan days are over."

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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