A man of many facets

April 25, 1994|By Ray Jenkins

AT THIS solemn time, when Americans pause to reflect on the mercurial life of Richard Milhous Nixon, an offhand remark some years ago by former Sen. J. William Fulbright comes to mind:

"Aside from his criminality," Fulbright said with an impish smile, "Richard Nixon was a pretty good president."

A trifle ungenerous, perhaps, to recall that remark at the present moment, but the truth is, there could be no more succinct or precise political epitaph for the enigmatic man who, 20 years ago this summer, was forced to resign the presidency which he had just two years before won by the largest electoral vote in 100 years.

But if we leave that little unpleasantness aside, we find that, for all the contradictions between the words of his campaigns and the deeds of his official actions, Mr. Nixon's performance indeed measures up to that of "a pretty good president."

He was, above all, a unapologetic practitioner of the art of realpolitik, which to Nixon meant simply that you didn't necessarily have to like your neighbors to get along with them.

To this end, even his sharpest critics concede, he achieved spectacular breakthroughs of lasting importance through his tireless pursuit of detente with our most intractable ideological adversaries, the Soviet Union and China.

And, even though he bombed the hell out of Cambodia in the process, he finally managed to extricate America from the morass of Vietnam in a manner which would enable his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to share the Nobel Peace Prize with the Vietnamese Communist, Le Duc Tho.

On the domestic front, his record is somewhat more spotty, and always marred by rhetoric which verged on pure demagogy.

Yet even here there was always a marked difference between what Mr. Nixon said he would do and what he did.

In the 1968 campaign, as a part of a cynical "Southern strategy" to pander to George Wallace's constituency, he promised to appoint "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court who would abandon social experimentation and get tough on criminals.

Yet three of his four appointees -- Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell -- all came to be respected centrists compared to a single unregenerate "law 'n' order" justice, William Rehnquist.

Mr. Nixon campaigned as a social conservative, yet his first domestic policy adviser was none other than the pragmatic liberal, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who advanced proposals for welfare reform which, if adopted 25 years ago, might have averted the social crisis which grips America's cities today.

And for all his cunning and conniving to win office, he could, when the chips were down, defer to the best interests of the nation. In 1960 he declined to challenge -- even though there were demonstrable legitimate grounds -- the election of John Kennedy because he felt such a challenge might cause grave damage to America.

He could be suspicious and distrustful, displaying elements of outright paranoia toward his perceived adversaries, even placing fellow citizens on a secret "enemies list," and he could without qualms skirt the law when it seemed in his interests, as the Watergate debacle so tragically illustrated.

And yet, when he was ordered by a unanimous Supreme Court to turn over the incriminating tapes which would lead to his downfall, he dutifully complied rather than plunge the nation into a constitutional crisis.

And after that travail, instead of nursing bitter resentments, he wrote thoughtful, perceptive books -- more perhaps than any other former president before or since. In one of these, an especially insightful collection of profiles of modern world figures entitled simply 'Leaders," he perhaps wrote his own political epitaph in thoroughly Nixonian terms.

A leader, Mr. Nixon wrote, does not aspire to power for its own sake, but rather to accomplish what he perceives to be worthy objectives for the common good.

In this pursuit, he went on, a leader must be prepared to resort to "guile, vanity and dissembling -- guile to hold together shifting coalitions of bitterly opposed groups . . . vanity to create the right kind of public impression . . . dissembling in order to prevail on crucial issues."

Machiavelli couldn't have said it any better.

Ray Jenkins is a former editorial page editor of The Evening Sun.

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