Nixon made it easy to understand wrong from right

April 26, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

With Richard Nixon, it wasn't just politics. It was personal. And now that he's gone, where does that leave us?

Nixon was my moral compass. Wherever he stood, I always knew to position myself 180 degrees apart. If he moved in one direction, I confidently moved in the other.

Now, I'm left on my own to figure out right from wrong.

Like many of my generation, I never imagined Nixon wouldn't be there, as an enduring symbol of the dark underside of the American dream. It will take some getting used to.

Since his death, though, everyone wants to make nice. You see the talking heads on TV. There's a lot of China, blah, blah, blah, and foreign policy, blah, blah, blah, and the dignity of his last years, blah, blah, blah.

Not much discussion about the secret bombing of Cambodia or the smearing of Helen Gahagan Douglas or the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office or, well, you know the rest of the ugly story.

I guess that's the polite thing to do when somebody dies. You look for the good in his life. But if Nixon is watching, he must be disappointed.

Nixon never made nice.

What he made was enemies. He even made up his own enemies list. Here's the essential Nixon: His aides would bring him the daily reports, and, in the margins, the president of the United States would write of one perceived enemy or another, "Get him."

He understood enemies. He would have expected them to hate him to the end.

But hate, as surely as love, can fade over time. It is 20 years since Nixon escaped impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors by resigning. The passions of that era have long since been spent.

If you miss some of that anger, though, try any of the ubiquitous Nixon retrospectives. The memory of the anger, if not the anger itself, will be there for you.

As you watch, the thing you notice first is how easy the stiff, rigid, wingtips-on-the-beach Nixon was not to like.

There could never have been a president who lent himself more easily to caricature. In fact, I have a tendency to confuse the real Nixon with the Dan Aykroyd version. And maybe there's no difference. Aykroyd got the furtive eyes, the hunched-over shoulders, the angry paranoia perfectly. I am not a crook. Quick, who said it -- Nixon or Aykroyd?

The cartoonists got him, too. One had Nixon, in the fabled George Washington pose, holding an ax over a downed cherry tree. The caption read: I cannot tell a truth.

But the more you watch, the less funny it seems. Suddenly, it's Vietnam and it's Kent State and it's life with Nixon all over again.

Somebody once said you shouldn't squander your hate, that it must be used judiciously.

In my family, Nixon was the one. It goes back way before Watergate, before Vietnam, back to the early days of Tricky Dick. There were two passions in my house -- baseball and politics. We were the kinds of fans who rooted hard for somebody and rooted just as hard against. We rooted for the Dodgers. We rooted against Nixon.

Nixon was a sports fan, too. He saw politics as a contest. If he had to falsely accuse an opponent of being a communist, that was part of the game. And if the Vietnam protesters hated him, he'd hate them right back.

Of course, he had a lot of players on his team, from the FBI to the IRS to the plumbers. The tapes revealed one of his weirder ideas about getting Teamsters Union thugs to pummel protesters.

Ah, the tapes. Expletives were deleted and also 18 1/2 minutes. Let's be honest. The Watergate hearings were not only about Nixon's abuse of power. This was also an opportunity to see Nixon laid low. It was grand theater, that's for sure. The outcome was in doubt until the end.

All the little villains got theirs. And, so, finally would Nixon, who was forced into exile.

It wasn't the end of him, though. There was the slow, painful rehabilitation. Daniel Schorr, an enemies-list alumnus, would say Nixon was running for ex-president. He finally made it back to the Clinton White House, of all places.

One thing about Nixon and his final comeback: He never apologized. He quit, he said. Wasn't that apology enough?

Maybe it was. Tomorrow they bury him. It's a national day of mourning. But each of us, in this still-free country, can mourn Nixon in our own way.

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