Despite his flaws, Nixon endured on global stage

ON POLITICS

April 20, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Whenever a major political figure is struck with 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.

Having said that, it must be observed that 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 elections and his opening 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 Nixon as an important figure in shaping their lives.

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

The remark illustrated the thick skin that has enabled Nixon to survive and endure against 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, 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." It was nothing 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 again in 1964, he worked the Republican political circuit assiduously, and after John 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 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 before finally accepting the inevitability of his nomination.

Between 1965 and 1967, Nixon toiled tirelessly in behalf of his party, 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, 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 Egypt's Anwar Sadat was slain, President Ronald Reagan sent him to the funeral along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. More recently, he briefed President Clinton on his Russian trip.

Through it all, Richard Nixon has been for some the bad penny who always has 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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