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How Nixon got his groove back



Believe it or not, Richard Milhous Nixon once wrote me a letter calling me an "opinion leader." (That ought to resolve any lingering doubts about this column.)

The letter was attached to page proofs of one of the many books he cranked out after his fall from power in an effort to prove he was still relevant after being disgraced.

Needless to say, when it arrived, with my name and his signature handwritten by the Dark Lord himself, I was mystified. Then I remembered. I had reviewed his previous book, Leaders, and said it was actually very good, mostly because it was not, for once, about him. Instead, Nixon had written essays on the great men – Winston Churchill, etc. – he had known during his years in power, and they were interesting and well done.

I might have had a clear shot at becoming Nixon’s favorite reviewer. Unfortunately, I found his newest book to be the usual self-serving swill. Oops. That ended my brief career as an opinion leader. But I kept and framed the letter, in the knowledge I will most likely trade it someday for my daily medication, or give it to an attendant who agrees to treat my bedsores.

For Nixon, you see, is in. Tanned, tested and ready, and bigger than ever, with a new book by a local author and a new movie. Never mind that he’s been dead five years; we need to come to terms with him at last.

The big anniversary was Monday. Twenty-five years ago, Nixon became the first and, so far (damn), only president to resign. For those who remember, it was a day of sunlit triumph. The young thought it proved the system worked.

Tricky Dick was finished, purged from the potty of our national life and, soon, we thought, from waking thoughts.

Boy, were we ever wrong.

Today, kids born long after Watergate can make the V-salute while proclaiming "I am not a crook." Oliver Stone predictably made a big-budget epic, Nixon, four years ago, and now there is a surprise new spoof, Dick, which is endearing, somewhat on the money, and appears to have had a total budget of 79 cents.

Exactly a quarter-century after the real Nixon quit, I was at the movies, watching the movie Dick do the same. The theater was nearly full, and most looked too young to remember. If Hollywood has rediscovered Nixon, authors have been pumping out books about the Dickster without pause, killing more trees than anything he did in Vietnam.

Why? Wayne State University’s Mel Small, a history professor who, unlike many of his breed, writes very well, has a new book, The Presidency of Richard Nixon, he was asked to do by the University Press of Kansas.

When he began the project, his view of Nixon was somewhat like the portrayal the no-name actor gives in Dick – nasty, mean, brutal and deceptive. It changed, however. "He was heavier in intellect than some other contemporary presidents. Smarter, well-read, even philosophical," Small told me. Nor is his record universally terrible. Yes, he bombed Vietnam and brutalized Indochina, destabilizing Cambodia and making the Khmer Rouge possible. He destroyed the elected government in Chile.

Yet Nixon conducted progressive and forward-looking diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union. Domestically, he was in many ways "the last liberal" president, who tried to reform welfare and who established the Environmental Protection Agency.

And then there was Watergate. Too often now do we, in our Age of Bill cynicism, assume that they "all do it/did it." Well, yes, and both Adolf Hitler and Jane Austen were sinners. Still, there is something of a difference of degree.

"Whereas some presidents participated in some of these illegal activities much of the time ... none of them committed all the illegal acts that constituted Watergate all the time." None, except the amoral army of thugs in the Nixon White House. By the time he left, the standard of public morality had been permanently redefined downward. Clinton’s own troubles are different, but the lying, the cover-up, look awfully similar to that original Age of Dick.

Yet even now, five years after starting his final dirt nap, Nixon is still with us. And in us. For our own dirty little secret is that he is, in the apt title of Tom Wicker’s biography, One of Us. We are family. "Let each of us ask, not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself," Nixon told the nation in a long-forgotten line. That, in a nutshell, is the ideology that held sway throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

What we ought not to forget is how, time and again, with iron discipline and tireless work, Nixon would start over and successfully reinvent and re-establish himself.

What we must never forget is the impulse that caused him (as it did Jack Kevorkian) to self-destruct when he reached the summit of power.

For he believed, finally, deep down, in nobody and nothing, as Small’s book makes clear, and too many of us are his children. "When men look at me they see what they are," a drunken Nixon told his valet in the big movie version. Which may be why we continue to be both fascinated and repulsed, and proves even Oliver Stone can’t always get it wrong.

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