That men do lives after them, the good is oft...


April 25, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"THE EVIL that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones." Did Shakespeare write Richard Nixon's epitaph?

It will depend on whose assessment of Tricky Dick's life and career you read. My using that moniker should make it perfectly clear where I stand. He will always be Tricky Dick to me, the man I wouldn't buy a used car from.

Poor Nixon. He had the longest national-level career of anyone in our history. He was a nominee on a national ticket five times. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt equals that. He served six-and-a-half years as president and eight a heartbeat away. Yet for most Americans alive in his time, his reputation will always be based only on his entry onto the national stage in 1948 and/or his exit in 1974.

He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and assigned to the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was a viper's nest of demagogues, many of them as much racist as anti-Communist. Nixon fit in well. He had won election by slyly smearing the incumbent Democrat in his district, Jerry Voorhis, as a subversive.

This was at a time when a lot of people in Washington were looking for Reds under the bed. Sen. Joe McCarthy was the best known of them. Nixon, to his credit, actually found one, which is more than most of his ilk did. That would be Baltimore's favorite son, Alger Hiss.

Hiss, who will outlive Nixon, which is perhaps the best revenge, denies to this day that he was associated with a Communist spy ring in Washington, as Nixon charged in HUAC hearings. But the consensus verdict of the legal system, journalism and the history profession is that he was.

Nixon used his Hiss case high profile to win a Senate seat in 1950, again by weasel attacks on his opponent, Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, equating her liberalism with disloyalty.

Just two years later he was Ike's running mate, primed and ready to be his loyal, two-term hatchet man.

Fast forward to 1974. Six years after finally winning the presidency and two years after winning re-election in one of the greatest landslides of all time, Nixon was like a cornered rat in the Oval Office.

First the special so-called Ervin Committee in the Senate, considering the Watergate break-in and cover-up, and then the Judiciary Committee in the House, considering articles of impeachment, revealed to a rapt nation a foul-mouthed and narrow-minded president actively involved in sordid activities that reached the level of constitutional "high crimes and misdemeanors."

The man who got 61 percent of the vote in '72 had a Gallup Poll approval rating of 24 percent in '74.

Nixon did a lot between Alger Hiss and Watergate, and later, plenty of it good, but for many Americans alive today the tale of Richard Nixon will always be just "Once upon a time" and "The End." Nothing in between, and no Afterword.

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