Whether in victory or defeat, a resilient, tenacious battler Richard Nixon dies in coma at 81

April 23, 1994|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The agonies and ecstasies of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, and the endless controversy over him, colored American life and politics for nearly half a century, from his election to the House of Representatives in 1946 to his death yesterday at the age of 81.

From the peaks of his election to the presidency in 1968 and re-election in 1972, to the depth of his resignation in disgrace in 1974 when faced with impeachment over his cover-up of the Watergate scandal, Mr. Nixon rode a political roller-coaster that might have broken a less determined man.

In his 48 years of public life, he demonstrated a remarkable ability to absorb major setbacks and resurrect his political fortunes. His election to the White House came after a narrow defeat for the presidency in 1960 at the hands of John F. Kennedy and a failed effort two years later to win the governorship of California.

Even after he was forced from office in 1974, he managed through his writings and occasional public utterances over the nearly 20 years remaining in his life to re-establish his voice as an authority in foreign affairs, first constructed as a widely traveled vice president under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961.

That reputation later was cemented when, as president, he opened diplomatic relations with the Communist regime in China that he had so vigorously opposed in a long career as a self-styled anti-Communist. In all, he wrote nine books on politics and foreign policy, eight of them after his resignation. On the day that he suffered the stroke that would lead to his death, the page proofs for his latest book, "Beyond Peace," were delivered to his office not far from his home in the northern New Jersey suburb of Park Ridge.

A sports enthusiast who equated the political life with sports, Mr. Nixon in a 1968 interview summed up the philosophy that drove him in these words: "Anybody in politics must have great competitive instinct. He must want to win. He must not like to lose, but everything else, he must have the ability to come back, to keep fighting more and more strongly when it seems that the odds are the greatest. That's the world of sports. That's the world of politics. I guess you could say that's life itself."

Mr. Nixon was known early and through most of his career as an intensely partisan political in-fighter. His win-at-all-costs intensity, conveyed to his associates, proved to be his undoing when agents of his re-election committee were caught breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington on the night of June 17, 1972.

Press investigations and congressional hearings uncovered a host of other abuses of presidential power, including the bribing of the Watergate burglars to keep quiet.

Although Mr. Nixon steadfastly insisted that he was not involved in any of it, proclaiming at one memorable point that "I am not a crook," the disclosure of tape recordings made of conversations he had had with associates in the Oval Office finally produced a "smoking gun" exchange in which it was clear that he was aware of the cover-up attempts and was part of them.

With a grand jury naming him an "unindicted conspirator" and a House committee approving three articles of impeachment against him, Mr. Nixon finally stepped aside on Aug. 9, 1974, still declining to acknowledge the degree of his complicity in the affair.

Although he later did say that he had allowed attitudes to flourish in his political inner circle that led to the excesses of Watergate, he went to his death without ever explicitly confessing to personal wrongdoing.

The controversy that surrounded Mr. Nixon through all of his political career reached another fever pitch a month later when his hand-picked vice president and successor, President Gerald Ford, suddenly pardoned him of all crimes committed or allegedly committed in the Watergate scandal.

The action brought a storm of protest down on Mr. Ford and was widely regarded as a major factor in his defeat for a full presidential term in his own right in 1976. The pardon, however, was essential to Mr. Nixon's ability to struggle out of the depression of his resignation and to rebuild his public image.

A young dreamer

From a storybook beginning in a tiny house in the small California town of Yorba Linda, where Mr. Nixon was born to economically struggling parents on Jan. 9, 1913, he dreamed of greater horizons beyond. In later life he often talked of lying in bed at night, listening to the whistle of a passing train and wondering where life's journey would take him.

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