A presidency destroyed by a compulsion to control

April 27, 1994|By Daniel Schorr

IN THE end one is left wondering how so brilliant a man could have been so self-destructive, as though the architect of stunning victories also had to be the author of his own downfall.

I am thinking not only of the Watergate cover-ups and the missteps that led Richard Nixon to hang himself politically with his own Oval Office tape.

I am thinking also, and more personally, about the idiotic "enemies list" and the wiretap lists and, in my case, the FBI investigation that ended up as an item in the House of Representatives' bill of impeachment.

He seemed to thrive more on adversity than success. On the night of his 1972 landslide re-election, I noted how strangely grim he looked, responding to the wild ovation he received at his campaign headquarters.

Next day he called together his Cabinet and, without any time out for self-congratulation, announced to them a sweeping governmental shake-up aimed at bringing departments more directly under his control.

"Control" seemed the key to understanding Nixon. He sought to control everything around him. He divided his world into supporters and "enemies." He told his aides they must see to it there were no "surprises" during the 1972 campaign. That led to the Watergate break-in, an effort to learn what "surprises" might lurk in Democratic headquarters.

Comebacks were his specialty, and the most amazing campaign he waged was a 20-year campaign to be an elder statesman. It was carefully orchestrated from his first public appearance, 13 months after his resignation, on a California golf course. Then he plunged back into foreign affairs, visiting Moscow and Beijing, where he had always been treated like a hero and made comfortable.

He had always displayed a greater interest in America's global condition than America's human condition. It seemed easier for him to deal with maps than with persons. But in that campaign he forced himself to deal with people -- even journalists -- in a friendly manner.

And so he contrived a reconciliation with me, having me invited to dinners where he gave briefings on Russia, giving me an interview for National Public Radio and, a few weeks ago, inviting me to participate in the Richard Nixon Foreign Policy Institute he was planning to create.

That was to have culminated his long march back to Washington -- that and having been received by President Clinton at the White House. He did not live to see his own think-tank in the nation's capital. But he left his monument in nine books, the last of them, titled "Beyond Peace," completed shortly before his death.

He was a brilliant, restless, brooding man, with an image to dominate and a rage to fail. For half a century he hovered over America and, for those of the Nixon generation, he is a presence it is hard to believe is gone.

Daniel Schorr, senior analyst for National Public Radio, served as a correspondent for CBS during the Nixon presidency.

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