Life With Father - And Nixon Victimized hero or unvarnished crook? For years, my father and I had argued about Tricky Dick. Now it was time to let the man speak for himself.

March 30, 1997|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Maybe it's no accident that my father and I developed the peculiar bond we have regarding Richard Nixon and Watergate.

After all, the same June weekend in 1972 that burglars were creeping through the Watergate office complex in Washington, my father was visiting the capital with his wife -- newly pregnant with me. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it certainly proved to be a landmark weekend for us all.

For Nixon, it was the beginning of the end of his presidency, leading to a disgraced exit from office and a tarnished image in history books. Even at his death in 1994, the opening line of The Sun's obituary recalled "the endless controversy over him."

For my father and me, Watergate became the crux of a constant, passionate debate. My father recalls the incident and ensuing scandal as the point at which a relatively objective press spiraled hopelessly downward to become a gang of liberals looking to lynch conservatives. I, on the other hand, have come to see the Watergate affair as the tyrannical turn of a paranoid leader who needed to be checked by a strong, disinterested press.

We've spent countless breakfasts and dinners debating every facet of it: motives, personalities, agendas. When I was in college, we managed to fit in fights during school breaks and campus visits. After I graduated (from a school, incidentally, he considered much too liberal), I moved back home and got a job -- as a reporter. My father, recently retired from a career in public relations, was home too, so we had more time than ever to joust.

Then last year I moved south to Baltimore. Our fiery debate proved difficult to maintain on the telephone (especially when one of us refused to acknowledge his need for a hearing aid). So I started looking for an excuse to invite him down. That's when I hit on the perfect field trip: a visit to the tapes.

The tapes. The tapes that proved Nixon and his top aides engineered a cover-up of White House involvement in Watergate. The tapes the National Archives finally released to the public in November after a 21-year battle with the Nixon estate. The tapes my father has always said Nixon should have burned.

It seemed like the perfect father-daughter outing.

At least for this father and daughter -- a 67-year-old conservative who was a Phil Graham Republican last year and thinks Nixon's profile belongs on Mount Rushmore, and a 24-year-old liberal who hoped Ralph Nader would somehow pull an upset last November and thinks Woodward and Bernstein deserve a monument.

Some kids have baseball. I have political discord. When I really talk to my dad, it's through politics. So even a verge-of-a-heart-attack fight over "family values" has been -- after a three-week brooding period -- a bonding experience for my dad and me.

It wasn't always this way. There was a time I worshiped my father's politics. We'd sit in front of the "Morton Downey Jr." show laughing as the host clobbered "flaming liberals." I'd cheer during the last words of Ronald Reagan's State of the Union addresses as my father kissed the television screen. But sometime between braces and the prom, things began to change.

A high-school history teacher assigned a report on the Alger Hiss spy case, and I suddenly saw Nixon, my father's Watergate victim, in a whole new light. It unleashed a chain reaction. I started thinking more for myself and started to disagree.

So for the last decade or so, we've argued. Over the Iran-contra dealings. Over the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Over affirmative action and welfare. And when we grew tired of those, there was always Richard Nixon to kick around.

Now, with our chances to argue increasingly scarce, who better than the man himself to ignite things again? We made a date to listen to the tapes.

The tapes, at the new National Archives center in College Park, are recordings of 201 hours of conversation that focus exclusively on the Watergate happenings between 1971 and 1973. The short, sometimes unintelligible conversations were recorded from several devices Nixon had installed in the Oval Office, his private office, the Cabinet Room and on his own

telephone.

Long after he left office, Nixon wrote that he installed the microphones for posterity, so that his administration would be the best-recorded in history. It was a fateful decision. Today, visitors to the archives are introduced to these recordings as the "Abuse of Government Power" tapes.

The recordings are available to anyone and can be heard Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 3: 30 p.m. But archivist Linda Fisher says they have generated much more interest in the press than among the general public.

As a result, there have been newspaper stories about Nixon's anti-Semitic comments; about his suggestions to break into the liberal think tank Brookings Institute and send immigration agents to raid the Los Angeles Times; about his previously unreported offer to leave office in 1973.

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