Nixon scandal conferred distrust of officialdom



WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON--Maybe one reason it doesn't seem like 20 years since Richard Nixon resigned the presidency to avoid impeachment in the Watergate scandal is that the man, far from fading into obscurity, continued to hold the public's fascination until and even after his death 3 1/2 months ago.

Even in the early years of his exile at his home in San Clemente, Nixon stories and speculations kept him in the nation's consciousness. Would he finally acknowledge his wrongdoing? Would the ignominy break him? Would that, or his failing health, send him to his grave? Would he "come back" as an elder statesman on the strength of his foreign policy achievements as president?

The saga of the self-resurrection of Richard Nixon over most of the two decades after Watergate mesmerized the generations that had witnessed his political downfall, while appalling many who could neither forget nor forgive the deeds that had brought it about.

Nixon never tired of quoting Theodore Roosevelt, as he did in his resignation talk to the nation, that "the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena . . . who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again . . . but who does actually strive to do the deeds . . . and if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. . . ."

Even in those resignation remarks, however, Nixon had continued his dissembling, contending that he was leaving the arena "because I no longer have a strong enough political base in Congress" to pursue his agenda, when the obvious truth was that the jig was up on Watergate, and he knew it.

After the period of silent exile in California that he called the "wilderness" in his book, "In the Arena," Nixon set out with remarkable determination to get himself back in that arena. He was strikingly successful, first through writings and then in world travels, to make himself a voice respected by many Americans in the realm of world affairs.

Politically, he remained a pariah in his own party, never invited to any of the five Republican national conventions that followed his resignation. Indeed, his pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford, was widely regarded as a key factor in Ford's losing his bid for election in his own right two years later.

Although Nixon's resignation came after one of the most exhaus

tive and incriminating series of hearings in the history of Congress, many defenders continued to contend that he was unjustifiably driven from office. It was a fiction that fueled his resurrection and contributed to the revisionism that marked so many commentaries upon his death.

President Clinton in his eulogy urged that Nixon be judged on his "entire life and career," as if Watergate was a singular blemish -- a notion soon challenged anew in the posthumous diaries of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's White House chief of staff.

Ford on succeeding Nixon 20 years ago declared that "our long national nightmare is over," but that was true only in the immediate sense of ringing down the curtain on Watergate and Nixon's presidency. Together the scandal and the man at its center left a legacy over the next 20 years of public doubt and lack of trust in public officialdom generally that is seen today in a much less severe aspect in the Whitewater affair.

If Nixon was able to resurrect himself to a degree personally, the country never rebounded in a similar fashion from the events that forced the man's resignation.

Public opinion polls and presidential election turnouts alike charted a continuing and even growing lack of confidence in government and the politicians seeking to run it in the years after Nixon's resignation, until a slight upswing in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. But that indication of a rise in credibility soon vanished thereafter.

Not all of this pessimistic and suspicious voter outlook, obviously, can be laid to Nixon's resignation. The Vietnam experience, prolonged by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, nurtured the sour attitude, as has the failure to address serious domestic needs. But the deeds that led to the Nixon resignation in some ways scarred the country as much as they did the man.

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