Give Nixon credit, but don't forget his dark side

April 26, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Eighteen years ago, I got half an hour alone at a Baltimore country club with John Dean, the man who spilled Richard Nixon's darkest Watergate secrets. How very American: First you topple a government, then you cash in by the side of the pool.

Dean was touring the country to sell his side of the undoing of Nixon. He did a country club here, a civic group there, and answered questions patiently if a reporter stumbled in. He was dressed solemnly, as though for a bank loan interview, and he hadn't an ounce of soft-focus hindsight in him.

He called Richard Nixon a pathetic human being. We're hearing a lot of that now, in the aftermath of Nixon's death last week, but Dean didn't mean it the way it's being used today. He meant Nixon had screwed the country. The context today seems different. It says: Nixon was a victim of his own pathetic personality, so let's forget he was trying to slip things past Justice while she had her blindfold on.

"There was an atmosphere in the White House," Dean said that night. "These were things" -- the whole range of acts surrounding the Watergate break-in -- "that Nixon wanted to happen. When he didn't want things to happen, they didn't happen. His was a well-weeded garden."

The name itself -- Watergate -- has become shorthand for many of the excesses of the Nixon years. But, in shorthand, we lose nuance. We remember names and phrases -- Deep Throat, the 18-minute gap -- that became cultural landmarks of a time, and those of us who were outraged by Nixon still gather around them, as at a campfire, to warm ourselves.

But we've lost too many of the details. Since Americans no longer have much memory, the shorthand implies we remember what we're talking about when in fact we don't. Watergate was just the tearing away of a veil, the final proof that Nixon was doing all the things we'd long suspected him of doing.

But we've lost most of the feel of Nixon's time.

"My image of the Nixons at home in the evening," the comic Mort Sahl once said, "is Pat knitting an American flag, and Dick sitting there reading the Constitution -- looking for loopholes."

Nixon told us, back in '68, that he had a plan to end the war in Vietnam. But he wouldn't tell us the loophole, that it would take long years to end it. And he wouldn't tell us anything about this brilliant plan, while the body count mounted, until after we'd voted for him.

He told us he'd seen a little girl on the campaign trail with a sign that said, "Bring Us Together." But he was the most divisive (and petty) president of the century, a man who willfully created and then rode an atmosphere of cultural antagonism, a man who turned Spiro Agnew into an attack dog.

He called himself a law and order man, but his law enforcement agencies violated civil liberties routinely. Have we forgotten the wiretapping, and the chill people felt when they heard a click in their telephones? Agencies take their cues from the top. The IRS became a political tool of the White House. Have we forgotten the IRS commissioner who told Congress his people hid bugging devices in lunch boxes and Chapsticks?

In Baltimore, a police commissioner named Donald Pomerleau worked his own angles. His intelligence unit tailed politicians who'd done nothing more than disagree with Pomerleau. There were wiretaps, break-ins, collection of information on noncriminals through a credit agency. People were investigated for peacefully demonstrating. Files were put together with "very personal and sensitive information," as a state Senate report later phrased it.

And it happened because Richard Nixon's White House was sending out explicit signals which encouraged these things to happen. He was the godfather of modern political cynicism. He presided over a nation of bared teeth.

"If Watergate hadn't happened," John Dean said on that long-ago visit here, "it would have been another type of Watergate, but worse. Things were going in a dangerous direction under Nixon. He tried to justify it. He told me to dig up dirty linen of previous administrations. But if you hold all that dirty linen up, it still doesn't make Watergate look clean."

And Watergate's only a shorthand phrase for things we seem to have forgotten. It's OK to give Nixon credit where it's due, but let's also remember what he cost us.

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