A Perverse Decency

April 28, 1994|By PETER A.JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — To the big generation of Americans now aged 40 to 50-plus, Richard Nixon played the role of wicked stepfather. The more educated and privileged they were, the more they despised him.

It was odd, but interesting, that in the 1960 election Nixon stood for the old generation that had won the war and kept the peace, while John Kennedy, only five years younger and like Nixon a former naval officer, stood for the coming generation that promised to do better and get the country moving again.

That was certainly the way I saw it. I wasn't quite old enough to vote for Kennedy, but I would have. My parents were for Nixon, which didn't bother me; in my eyes it just confirmed his position as the old people's candidate.

But when I was in Ireland in the summer of 1960 and met a young woman who said she hoped Nixon would win, it shocked me, as though she'd uttered an obscenity. (That was before obscenities became part of the generational protocol.)

Now Richard Nixon is in his grave, but he lived long enough to be assured that history is already hard at work rehabilitating his reputation. And he was wise enough to see that the graying generation of Nixon-haters is already over the hill. Younger historians will see him differently, as they already see John Kennedy.

The best Nixon biography thus far, and one of the best political biographies to come along in several years, is due for publication this June. It's by Jonathan Aitken, an English writer and member of Parliament who met Nixon in 1966 and cultivated the acquaintanceship for the next 25 years.

Although it's not an authorized biography specifically sanctioned its subject, it still includes much new material and provides a more rounded look at Nixon than anything published so far.

Certainly any detached comparison made today between the two candidates in that epochal election of 1960 is going to be quite different from those made at the time. The perspective that comes with 30 years has given us much sharper insights into the personalities and private lives of the two adversaries.

What we've learned about Kennedy since the initial clouds of hagiography have dissipated has been uniformly squalid. What we've learned about Nixon, and are likely to continue to learn, is that he was not only an extraordinary complicated human being, but an extraordinarily decent one. His own decency, though, he seemed perversely determined to hide.

Kennedy's patronizing comment about Nixon -- ''no class'' -- lives on, but as the years go by it survives not because of its accuracy but because of its irony. Class? Consider:

Kennedy went to Harvard, where his senior thesis was ghost-written for him at his father's expense. Nixon was offered a full-tuition scholarship to Harvard -- the Harvard Club of California having chosen him as the ''best all-round student'' in the state -- but couldn't accept because he knew he couldn't afford the travel and other ancillary expenses. He worked his way through Whittier, and Duke Law School.

The lurid details of Kennedy's rabbit-like concupiscence, while suspected (but not reported) for years, have only recently become widely known. His marriage was a glittery charade. By )) contrast, Nixon's 53-year marriage to Pat Ryan appears to have been as loving, and as mutually faithful, as it was long.

We're constantly told nowadays by the arbiters of the New Morality, frequently in reference to the current administration in Washington, that a public official's sexual conduct has nothing to do with his or her fitness for office. But most Americans don't believe that. You don't have to be a prude to figure out that someone who's routinely dishonest in private life may be less than trustworthy as a public person.

During the 14 months he was overseas during World War II, Richard Nixon wrote to his wife every day -- numbering the letters. And every day she wrote to him. This intimate correspondence has never been made public by the Nixon family, but the volume alone belies the Washington canard that the marriage was loveless. So do most anecdotes about the Nixons' devotion to each other in their later years.

Like Churchill, and like no other American president since Woodrow Wilson, Nixon was an intellectual as well as a politician. During hisout-of-office years as a lawyer, he won the respect of old adversaries for his argument before the Supreme Court. He published nine serious books. And all his life he thought hard about difficult issues.

Within his very private life, there seems to have been no shortage of love and affection, but as a public personality he was hard to like and impossible to love. He seemed to accept that and even to welcome it, and always said he would settle for respect. And while he received even that only intermittently while he was alive, it's a good bet that history will be both kinder and fairer to him.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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