The Angriest President

April 26, 1994

Because of production problems, the cartoon and editorial on the death of President Richard M. Nixon failed to appear in many Sunday editions. In consideration of the importance of the event, The Sun is reprinting them.

Of the 41 Americans who have held the presidency, Richard M. Nixon was perhaps the most tragic. Not tragic in the sense of greatness denied or virtue unrewarded: He had neither. Not tragic in the sense of a common man overwhelmed: He was uncommon to a high degree.

Mr. Nixon was tragic because he constructed a role for himself that was so lofty, so unrelenting, so devoid of human comforts, so committed to combat he would have been unfulfilled even if he had left the White House with honor rather than disgrace.

That he is condemned to be branded forever as a president forced from office under threat of criminal prosecution is, in a perverted way, an apt exit from his turbulent life. It will leave him to gasp through all eternity for the love and respect and appreciation that eluded him. He will be forever a tortured figure, constricted, convoluted, never understood.

Stephen E. Ambrose, a perceptive biographer, describes Richard Nixon as our "angriest" president, which he was.

But RN reveled in his anger. And though Mr. Ambrose has written three fine volumes on a man he predicts will get only a paragraph or two in standard American textbooks a century hence, such predictions come at great risk.

Consider our post-war presidents. Which will be memorable and contentious and three- dimensional long after they have passed from the scene?

Harry Truman did great things, but his hagiographers have made him a Norman Rockwell caricature. The others will be the Chester Arthurs and James Garfields of the late 20th century. Largely forgotten. The recipients of Professor Ambrose's putative two paragraphs. Only Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon qualify.

These two extraordinary presidents, destined to govern during the most tumultuous decade of our era, changed the way Americans thought about themselves and their country. They ruled over the loss of innocence and the birth of cynicism on revered matters -- flag, duty, patriotism, the majesty of America -- that had gone largely unchallenged even in the worst of times. And they did so while obsessed with power, consumed by self-doubt, swept along to the abyss of failure.

Richard Nixon's domestic accomplishments form a continuum with LBJ's construction of a Great Society. Though he lashed at liberals all his life and trotted out Republican invective against government spending, Mr. Nixon actually was the Great Implementer of the Great Society.

It was Richard Nixon who provided vast funds for housing, urban renewal, education, health care and other elements of the Johnson program. It was he who shifted large chunks of the budget from defense to problem areas at home. Liberal Democrats, consummate Nixon-haters, didn't see it -- and still don't. But Republican conservatives did and do, which is why Reaganites reviled Nixonism.

In foreign affairs, the one field in which even detractors give Mr. Nixon some credit, there is no taking away his opening to China and his pursuit of detente with the Soviet Union.

It was here that Mr. Nixon's manipulative streak was masterful. Ever the believer in big-power diplomacy, he recognized that the way to handle the two Communist adversaries was to get cozier with them than they were to each other.

He recognized, too, that his reputation as a Red-baiter, a reputation etched in wretched distortions on the campaign stump and witch hunts on Capitol Hill, gave him the political wherewithal to accommodate Beijing and Moscow as Democrats never could.

Had Mr. Nixon settled for a quick Vietnam exit, had he refrained from the secret bombing of Cambodia and the fruitless war in Laos, Southeast Asia might have been a diplomatic triumph, too. Just as the Great Society linked LBJ and RN in unwanted embrace, so did Vietnam. Rather than cut clean, rather than accept his (or LBJ's) losses and move on, President Nixon strode the cliff's edge until he stumbled.

In a way, Vietnam was a harbinger of Watergate. Just as he could have gotten out of Southeast Asia at the outset of his presidency, he could have disposed of the whole Watergate matter in an afternoon by chopping a few heads and uttering the requisite condemnation of dirty tricks. But the attempted cover-up of the infamous "third rate burglary" led to his undoing.

He talked morality but abjured it. He was prepared to lie, deceive and even defy the Constitution in a desperate effort to save himself from his own malfeasance. Loyalty, friendship, a proper respect for a democracy's restraints upon the presidency -- all were absent from a man who conceived of life as a vast conspiracy against himself. His arrogance and anguish during the Watergate ordeal will long be the stuff of drama and controversy.

Richard Nixon was the most enduring and infuriating political figure of this half-century. The smearing of Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Checkers speech, the "Kitchen Debate," snapback from defeats in 1960 and 1962, the trip to China, the refusal to sink out of sight after Watergate, his foreign policy prescriptions as elder statesman -- all these are part of the Nixon saga. It is not for contemporaries to define him definitively. This is a struggle best left to posterity. We can imagine his taking grim satisfaction in the exercise.

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