The tortured president

April 25, 1994

For a glimpse of the real Dick Nixon, look back to 1966. He had been defeated for the presidency by Jack Kennedy in 1960. He had been humiliated in a race for governor of California by Pat Brown in 1962. He was through -- in his own words a politician the press could kick around no more.

So what was he doing barnstorming the country morning till night, day after day, campaigning for Republican congressional candidates and lesser fry? What he was doing was being the real Dick Nixon that his detractors assumed could not exist. He was in combat, political combat, and loving it with the grim determination that was so much a part of his character. He was also picking up IOUs that to the amazement of pundits, circa 1966, were to help him win the presidency two years later.

Adversity was sweet milk to this most tortured of presidents. He thrived in the aura of struggle with which he enveloped his childhood. He parlayed himself to national notoriety on a wave of pre-McCarthy anti-communism, the prosecutor as putative victim. His campaign for the vice presidency brought him the misery depicted in the maudlin Checkers speech. His newsflash moments as Ike's No. 2 came in a shower of spit in Caracas and a Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev. His loss to the suave JFK was covered forever in chalky TV makeup that put him at a disadvantage.

But out of that defeat and the worse one two years later came one of the great political comebacks in U.S. history, culminating in his chin-lifted inaugural. The irony -- the tragedy -- was that Richard Nixon was for the first time genuinely triumphant as he rode to re-election in 1972. Then Watergate struck. It brought out his self-destructive streak, his cunning rather than his brilliance, his criminality rather than his command of world affairs. And as he left the White House in disgrace, his two hands aloft in Churchillian victory salute, he supposedly was washed up again.

'Twas not to be for Richard Milhous Nixon. He set about writing the best presidential memoir yet produced, an American classic still to be appreciated. He turned out half a dozen other books offering his analysis of leadership through the ages and events as current as today's newspaper. And he achieved a certain older statesmanship, always twinged of course by the awful legacy of being the first and only president ever forced from office.

Now his life is over. And in the outpouring of retrospective, of which this editorial is a part, the American people will have to begin accepting the fact that Richard Nixon was one of them. It was perhaps what he most wanted, but lonely and awkward and aloof and unloved, he never quite belonged. Until now.

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