How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nixon Well, at Least Not Hate Him

May 01, 1994|By RICHARD E. VATZ and LEE S. WEINBERG

Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose calls Richard Nixon "the most contradictory of men," and the avalanche of reactions and obituaries following the death of the ex-president reflect the polarizing effect the former president had on people when he was alive: Some revere him, others revile him, while still others now find themselves revising their assessments with the perspective provided only by the passage of time.

Paul Conrad's cartoon in the Los Angeles Times of a gravestone which reads, "Here LIES [our emphasis] Richard M. Nixon," exemplifies a strain of Nixon-hating which remains undiluted after these many years. Yet President Clinton, an avowed opponent of the Vietnam conflict, now admiringly says of Nixon that he managed "to leave his mark on his times as few figures have done in our history."

We, like many others, struggled to sort out our thoughts on the passing of Richard Nixon, and much to our surprise, we find ourselves closer to President Clinton's sentiments than those of Mr. Conrad.

We are politically interested baby boomers, born in 1946, the year that Mr. Nixon entered public life in a successful race against Jerry Voorhis for the House of Representatives. We are now 47, Bill Clinton's age, and the age at which Richard Nixon ran for president against the "youthful" John F. Kennedy, age 43. Mr. Nixon was the political centerpiece of our generation.

We were the student "bums" of the Nixon era. (He always said his "bum" epithet applied only to violent protesters. While he said it was another example of malicious misquoting, we were still insulted.) But maybe Mr. Nixon's "enemies" and Mr. Nixon misperceived each other in the way political scientist Ralph K. White wrote that warring parties typically do: Those of us who opposed him and his policies felt we were morally pure, and he was undilutedly evil and diabolical.

Now we're not so sure. It was always difficult to answer the question, "What did people so detest about Nixon?" Much of the hatred during his presidency, of course, was because of the Vietnam War, but his rhetoric also fed our loathing. He thrived on misrepresentation of his opponents and their positions, and was lavish in praise of his motives, usually attributed to others.

Many of those who claimed to detest Mr. Nixon seemed to revel in their hatred. Political scientist Murray Edelman has examined how enemies serve to symbolically provide significance to one another: police and criminals, spies and counterspies, establishment leaders and revolutionaries. Student protesters found in Mr. Nixon a willing adversary whose position as president conferred significance and importance on his youthful, powerless antagonists. (As Mr. White writes about warring parties, however, the youth had "military overconfidence," fueled the belief that they had already conquered one president, Lyndon Johnson.)

Hatred of Mr. Nixon, widespread particularly among college youth, was like not the fearful hating of a Hitler; indeed, it was marked by a certain elan, as if Mr. Nixon's lack of coolness made opposition to him morally invigorating and even fun. Many of us defined our political youth in reference to Mr. Nixon; he gave us and our views identity and significance.

And political movements in America often mean morally uplifting occupational rewards for their academic troops. As feminism has done for its academic supporters, Nixon-loathing did for others: providing opportunities for endless lectures, articles and doctoral dissertations, including one of ours, which analyzed (read pilloried) Mr. Nixon's politics and rhetoric.

For us, the view of the anti-Nixonites' purity of motives and selflessness started coming into doubt in the first few years after Mr. Nixon's resignation. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post writers whose journalism is credited with bringing down President Nixon, swaggered into Towson State a few years after their triumph. Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein -- especially Mr. Bernstein -- reveled in their newfound fame with a jaunty, boasting presentation, culminating in Mr. Woodward's account of his writing partner's opening words in a telephone conversation with him when Gerald Ford pardoned Mr. Nixon: "The son-of-a-bitch pardoned the son-of-a-bitch."

As Mr. Nixon and the Nixon-haters shared gamesmanship, so they shared paranoia. Mr. Nixon was seen -- correctly at times, incorrectly at others -- as paranoically suspicious of his "enemies."

He launched and nurtured his political career hunting for Communists in the U.S. government. Liberals howled and screamed. Yet, regarding his most celebrated case, his accusation in the late 1940s that Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department aide, was spying for the Communists, there is hardly a serious voice still maintaining Mr. Hiss' innocence.

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