The Inaccessible President, Most Like Our Fathers

May 03, 1994|By RICHARD LOUV

SAN DIEGO — TC Much has been written about how Richard Nixon changed over the past two decades, but what about the rest of us?

Last night, I pulled out my 1969-70 Kansas University yearbook, and read a long and overwrought piece I had written as a 20-year-old about the 1969 Moratorium, up till then the largest anti-war march on Washington. Along with other KU students, I had traveled across country on a yellow school bus.

''Apollo 12 headed for the Ocean of Storms as we entered the magic city, passed on the way by troop carriers . . .,'' I wrote.

''A box of the names of Kansans killed in Vietnam was pulled from behind my seat. We were asked above the noise if anyone wanted a special name to carry in the March Against Death. I asked for Dave Stone's card.''

I had met him once.

''It was 1 a.m. when we started across the bridge over the Potomac. The wind was ice water spray. . . . A church bell, brought from Newton, Kansas, tolled for each of the dead. I carried Dave Stone across the bridge. I carried him in Oz toward the White House, but the Wizard was warm in Florida, and no one except the hundreds of military guards were listening as we walked in front of the White House and yelled out each name that we carried.

''Some of the voices that called the names were shaking . . . some of the voices broke. Then we moved on past the dream -- the great white glowing building with the names bouncing off and echoing. No lights were on inside.''

We live today in a time when candidates and presidents exorcise their personal ghosts on ''Donahue.'' So it seems odd, reading these words, how remote this president seemed. A year later, Nixon slipped out of the White House and spoke with a group of protesters atthe Lincoln Memorial, but he talked about football. The students rolled their eyes. He just didn't get it.

My generation was shaped by a series of presidents in ways that most of us cannot fully describe or understand. We spent much of our formative years hating or idolizing them. We formed ourselves around who we perceived they were, though, as the years went by, the perceptions became flexibly plastic: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon -- and Robert Kennedy and Martin King, the presidents-in-exile.

The leaders who came afterward, even Ronald Reagan, seemed like stand-ins for the real thing. Of all of these, only Nixon aged along with us.

We wanted this man, who had promised us that he had a secret plan to end the war, to do it. Instead, the war was as lethal under Nixon as under Johnson, and the ending of it took longer than the fighting of World War II or the Korean War. We were always trying to reach Nixon.

''We reached the Capitol Building and lay the names in a long row of wooden coffins. A middle-aged woman in front of me held hersclose to her breast for a moment. Her eyes were closed. And then she dropped it in and walked off quickly.''

After he resigned, when we thought he was gone for good, we found that we still needed him. At least at first, we did not need him for his foreign policy analysis; we needed him for something else.

In the late '70s, Bob Greene wrote a column about going to see Nixon. The column was later collected in a book and I cannot find it in any bookstore today, but I remember being very moved by the piece. Greene visited Nixon a few years after the resignation. The office was sterile, too neat; Nixon was friendly and stiff. Greene, a boomer, wanted to ask him something -- wanted to ask him something for everyone his age, but could not articulate the question.

In the end, the young man and the old man wanted to continue the conversation, but could think of nothing else to say.

I think I know how Greene felt. A friend of mine does. He says he feels that he knows more about Nixon than he does his own father. He says this realizing the irony. Of all the presidents of our time, Nixon seemed the most inaccessible, the most like our fathers, and ultimately, the most like us.

''The cold and the crowd moving up the street pushed past me into a hotel lobby, where the marchers huddled in the warmth. A girl asked me where a television was. 'I have to find one to see what's going on.' ''

As we watched him age on television, and watched ourselves age, we saw a kind of grace emerge in him and hoped that we would do as well. He could have folded into bitterness and disappeared but he did not; we could have remained self-righteous, but for some of us that faded.

We were suspect of our mellowing and of his. But after a while, hating was no longer energy-efficient. Over time I came to better understand that my student draft deferment, my privilege, meant that someone else would go to that war and perhaps not come back.

Today a friend tells me, ''All the certainty I felt then is giving way to questions I can't answer: about Bosnia, for example. How awful it would be if we went to war there; how awful it would be if we do nothing.'' You catch yourself wondering: What would Nixon do?

A few months ago, I visited the Vietnam War Memorial for the first time. It is located where, in 1969, the protesters scattered through the clouds of gas. I found Dave Stone's name, and ran my finger along the letters.

Now I wonder if Nixon's name belongs on that wall, too, as a kind of casualty of the war; but then I remember that, unlike Dave Stone, who would never have the chance, Nixon was able to live until the age of 81.

In the back of our minds some of us are still arguing with Richard Nixon, trying to reach him, but time has run out.

Richard Louv is the author of ''FatherLove'' and ''Childhood's Future.'' He is also a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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