After all these years, Nixon still fascinates

August 09, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Twenty five years after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974, the saga of the man and his downfall continue to hang over the political life of the country.

Yet another movie, a comedy entitled "Dick," in which his misadventures involving the Watergate break-in and cover-up are examined once again, is about to be released.

At the same time, topping the best-seller lists in the New York Times and the Washington Post is the new book by Watergate sleuth Bob Woodward entitled "Shadow." It is predicated on the theory that the Watergate experience has hung over every president since Nixon in their failure to learn its lesson -- that getting the truth out quickly is the only effective way to deal with scandal.

The public skepticism and cynicism toward elected officials that were immediate products of Nixon's lies and deceptions continue unabated. The campaign reforms that were enacted in the 1970s as a direct result of abuses demonstrated in the Nixon campaign of 1972 have themselves come under severe attack, as politicians and their strategists have found ways to circumvent them.

Presidential improprieties

Despite his tireless efforts to rewrite history and rebuild his reputation, particularly as an expert in foreign policy, Nixon is remembered primarily as the first U.S. president to resign in disgrace. And the most remembered act of his successor, Gerald Ford, is his pardon of Nixon only weeks after the resignation, which many believe cost Mr. Ford election in his own right in 1976.

While Nixon's resignation enabled Mr. Ford to proclaim that "our long national nightmare is over," echoes of it have continued to be heard over the ensuing 25 years, as Nixon and his presidency have been examined and re-examined from every angle in newspaper retrospectives, books and motion pictures.

The lengthy court battle over possession and publication of the infamous Nixon White House tapes that eventually were Nixon's undoing, and their periodic release, have provided flashbacks to the corruption and venality of the Nixon administration. With each publication of newly released tapes, the harshness and profanity of the man and his chief political aides have brought headlines and a regurgitation of the whole Watergate fiasco.

Mr. Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who rose from being obscure junior reporters on the Washington Post to become national figures, have been the inspiration for a generation or more of investigative reporters. Mr. Woodward still calls the Nixon tapes, and their steady release producing more and more stories, "the gift that keeps on giving."

Even death, which came to Richard Nixon in April 1994 at age 81, did not write an end to the saga. The legal fight over ownership of the tapes and other Nixon papers, and whether the federal government owes millions of dollars to the Nixon estate for them, continues.

Clinton's debacle

Five years after Nixon's death, the impeachment of President Clinton and his Senate trial also triggered retrospectives about him and the articles of impeachment voted by the House against him that were the prime catalyst in his resignation.

In these recollections, it was often noted that Nixon's crimes were of a much more serious nature, subverting the Constitution itself, whereas Mr. Clinton's misconduct was of a personal nature, albeit most deplorable.

Nixon loyalists over the past 25 years have sought, however, to accentuate the positive aspects of his White House years -- most notably his opening to China. Yet even within his own Republican Party, he remained a pariah, never invited to attend its national convention after he was forced from office.

Still, for all that, with the possible exception of the martyred President John F. Kennedy, no other U.S. political figure has remained more dominant in the public dialogue over the past half-century than Nixon.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 8/05/99

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