Richard Milhous Nixon: A man of humor and generosity

April 27, 1994|By Dimitri Simes

RICHARD Nixon was a great leader who did a lot for his country and the world. And he would have done more if the tragedy of Watergate had not forced him to resign. Like most great leaders, he was a very complex man. No one who observed him as closely as I had the privilege of doing his last several years could remain unaware that he was quite a character.

He was, for example, extremely considerate to the people who worked for him, making sure, for example, that their accommodations were good. He was generous. The only fight over money that I had with him was when he wanted to pay me $5,000 for an extremely minor contribution I made to his last book. I refused, he insisted, and it was only when I explained that I might get in trouble with the Carnegie Endowment for accepting it that he relented, saying, "Dimitri, I don't want you to get in trouble with the law."

Contrary to many allegations, he was completely uninterested in money and in show. He usually had a modest lunch, sometimes just a hamburger in his room. It tells you a lot that he lived in a town house in the suburbs. How many former presidents would do that? He wore $200 suits that people joked were 10 years old -- though, always careful to appear presidential, he kept them clean and well pressed and wore fresh white shirts.

It will shock many that he had a wonderful sense of humor. During our trips together in Moscow, he constantly joked about having to control me lest I start World War III.

This human side of Richard Nixon has remained largely unknown to the public and is part of the drama of his political odyssey.

History will record that he was right on major issues of his time. He was tough on communism, progressive on race and pragmatic in his relentless pursuit of U.S. foreign policy interests.

Richard Nixon's conduct after the Watergate break-in was "stupid and wrong." That is exactly what he told me on more than one occasion. But those who take his performance during the Watergate agony out of the context of the time engage in personal vendetta rather than historical analysis.

They ignore that most of the abuses of power he was accused of had precedents in the conduct of other presidents, such as John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Mr. Nixon knew it only too well, since he was on the receiving end of some of them. The nation whose leadership he inherited in 1969 was badly divided by a war he did not start. Yet, his efforts to extricate the United States from it with honor were consistently undermined by the very Democrats in Congress who had to share responsibility for bringing America into that nightmare.

That Richard Nixon after his resignation was able once again to have a major impact on U.S. relations with Russia by persuading the reluctant Bush administration to support Boris Yeltsin demonstrates the caliber of that remarkable man.

His romantic and yet highly pragmatic interpretation of U.S. objectives in the world, his tendency to measure American actions abroad by results rather than intentions, his ability to have empathy with other nations while assertively pursuing American interests will remain a lasting legacy of this giant.

Dimitri Simes chairs the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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