Nixon's the One

April 27, 1994|By RICK HOROWITZ

First things first: ''Third-rate burglary'' isn't what it was.

''Third-rate burglary'' is what the perps and the plotters and the apologists tried to label it, hoping the country would pay it no mind. What it was was the tip of a ghastly iceberg -- and once upon a time, it nearly sank the ship of state.

He's gone now, Richard Nixon. The man who always looked so uncomfortable in his own skin is finally free of it, his great conflicted soul bound for points unknown.

Put aside the red-baiting and commie-bashing that first set him on the path to the White House. Concede the smarts that decades later allowed him to realize that it was time for a change, and to recognize that only Nixon could breach the Great Walls without facing Nixon on the barricades screaming ''Sellout!''

Put aside the ''Southern strategy,'' that cynical understanding that many people felt the civil-rights movement had gone too far, and that there was electoral gold in those fears. And concede, too, other domestic initiatives -- programs begun, appointments made -- that in the light of current-day politics look downright progressive.

It comes down to Watergate.

Myth: ''The cover-up was worse than the crime.'' No -- the crimes (plural, remember, not singular) were worse than the cover-up. That's why there was a cover-up.

Myth: ''They didn't have to break into Democratic headquarters -- they were winning anyway.'' Except that they weren't. Chuck Colson, former-Nixon-henchman-turned-partial-penitent, recalls that in early 1972, Nixon was frequently behind in the polls, trailing not George McGovern, but Ed Muskie. There was, Colson conceded, a ''frantic desire to hang onto the White House.''

Then Muskie self-destructed -- except, as we later learned, it wasn't entirely self-destruction -- and the eminently defeatable McGovern grabbed the Democratic nomination instead. But while the break-in was on the drawing board, a Nixon re-election was anything but a sure thing. Any edge might help.

We still don't know exactly what they were looking for, the Watergate burglars. To that extent, the cover-up succeeded -- still succeeds. We also don't know what other plots might have been hatching during those angry years. Nixon's lawyers spent the rest of his life fighting to keep the rest of his tapes from ever seeing the light of day.

Perhaps it all depends on what you consider important. ''Nobody drowned at Watergate,'' the defenders used to say, digging Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick hole just a little bit deeper. ''Nobody took a dollar.''

True, and probably true. But what nearly went under at Watergate was the democratic process. And the only thing Nixon and his crew tried to steal was the Constitution.

Compared to which the petty larcenies of Whitewater, if that's what they turn out to be, are distressing but ultimately penny-ante stuff. And compared to which even the scandals of Iran-contra don't quite measure up.

Only in Watergate were the organs of the government turned -- repeatedly, gleefully, with calculation and malice -- on the very citizens that government was supposed to represent.

When the time came, in the summer of '74, to try to call Nixon to account, the Article of Impeachment that got the strongest support in the House Judiciary Committee wasn't the first one, dealing with the Watergate cover-up itself. It was the second, much broader one, which dealt as well with wiretaps, other break-ins, attempts to sic the Internal Revenue Service on political opponents, misuse of the Secret Service, the FBI, the CIA . . .

They name they gave it was ''abuse of power.''

The writer Elizabeth Drew watched it all as it happened. On a weekend's re(re)reading of her ''Washington Journal: The Events 1973-1974,'' some of the long-ago details may have lost their sting. But the uncertainty, the anguish, the breadth and depth and magnitude of the crimes, the sense that the country was going through something it had never had to endure before, and that the outcome was very much in doubt, -- all that still vibrates off the pages.

And so does her fear that the lessons, so hard-won, could fade with the passage of time.

''There is already some talk about what 'the historians will say,' '' she writes on the day Nixon is to announce his resignation.

''I wonder if they will really understand what it was like. Will they know how it felt to go through what we have gone through? Will they know how it felt to be stunned -- again and again -- as we learned what had been done by people in power? . . . Will they be able to understand why, almost two years ago, some very sensible people wondered whether it was the last election? Will they understand how it felt . . . when it seemed that there were no checks on power?''

All of it unforgettable -- if we're lucky.

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist.

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