Resilience has been hallmark of a checkered career

April 20, 1994|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Whenever a major political figure is stricken by serious illness or death, there is always a temptation to gloss over his shortcomings and gild the lily. In the case of former President Richard M. Nixon, the historical record demands that he be chronicled before all else as the first occupant of the Oval Office ever to have resigned, in the face of impeachment over his role in covering up the Watergate scandal.

That said, it must be observed that Mr. Nixon has been the most tenacious and resilient of presidents and politicians, managing over a span of nearly half a century to remain on the center stage of American public life. Sometimes it has been in triumph and glory, as in his two election victories and his visit to China, sometimes in defeat and eclipse, as in that resignation in disgrace, but he has always been there. Several generations have grown up and matured with Mr. Nixon as an important figure in shaping their lives.

Often, Mr. Nixon has remained on the stage by insinuating himself into global affairs. The most recent example was his visit to Russia last month, when he insisted on meeting former Russian Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, a leader of the unsuccessful coup against President Boris N. Yeltsin, and right-wing leader Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky. Mr. Yeltsin responded by refusing to meet with Mr. Nixon, who commented that he was "too old" at 81 to be insulted.

The remark illustrated the thick skin that has enabled Mr. Nixon to endure all manner of assaults and indignities over his long career. Labeled a political hatchet man in his early days in Congress and as vice president under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he never flinched from hard-knuckle political combat.

When he was blamed for running a bad presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy in 1960, overextending himself physically and ending up looking terrible in their critical first television debate, he picked himself up, went back to California and ran for governor there two years later. Beaten in that campaign by Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, Mr. Nixon said on election night that the members of the press who "are so delighted that I have lost . . . won't have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." But it was not anything of the sort.

He took temporary refuge in a New York law firm, all the while plotting his political revival. While insisting steadfastly that he would not be a candidate for president in 1964, he worked the Republican political circuit assiduously and, after Kennedy's assassination, told Walter Cronkite that "if the opportunity should come again, I would accept it." Shortly afterward, he even said on the NBC "Today" show that he would accept the vice presidential nomination if asked by the party. He permitted his name to stay on the primary ballots in Nebraska and Oregon, and flirted with an effort to stop Barry Goldwater led by Republican governors before finally accepting the inevitability of the Goldwater nomination.

Between 1965 and 1967, Mr. Nixon toiled tirelessly in behalf of his party, which was severely wounded by the Goldwater debacle, and was credited as the architect of the Republican comeback in Congress in 1966. His successful campaign for the presidency in 1968, the culmination of a methodical study of what had gone wrong in 1960, was a classic in self-discipline and deft use of television.

After his darkest hour, the August 1974 resignation, Mr. Nixon revived himself again, slowly at first, with trips abroad, where the stain of Watergate was less perceived, and then in book-writing, wherein he could present his views in statesmanlike format without having to answer questions about Watergate. When Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat was slain, President Ronald Reagan sent Mr. Nixon to the funeral, along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford. More recently, Mr. Nixon briefed President Clinton on his Russian trip.

Through it all, Richard Nixon has been for some the bad penny who always turned up, for others the genuine world figure who would not let any obstacle bar his full participation "in the arena," as he has liked to call public life. Whatever else history says about him, it will have to note an indomitable spirit and determination to be heard.

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