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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Jules Witcover

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Jules Witcover

Last Build Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Endless Nixon Saga

Wed, 24 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0600

His death came near the end of another year in which the already departed Nixon continued to hold a strange but still intense fascination for Americans, and for followers of the American political drama elsewhere. That allure was reinforced in the last year through a stage and then the current film version of Nixon's revealing post-resignation television interview with British celebrity-inquisitor David Frost.

At the same time, the latest release of Lyndon B. Johnson's White House tapes by the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin added more fuel to the indictment of Nixon as one of America's most reprehensible White House occupants, based to considerable degree on disclosures in his own White House tapes.

The latest LBJ tapes reinforced long-time allegations, this time voiced by Johnson himself, that Nixon in 1968 had committed "treason," by encouraging through an intermediary South Vietnam's 11th-hour rejection of negotiations at peace talks in Paris to end the Vietnam War.

The tapes recorded LBJ charging Nixon with interfering in the conduct of American foreign policy, by having word sent to the Saigon government leaders only days before the American election that they would get a better peace terms if they stayed away until Nixon won and became president.

Johnson at the time was pushing for Saigon's participation, hoping such a diplomatic breakthrough would give the Democratic presidential nominee, his late-surging vice president Hubert Humphrey, the boost he needed to defeat Nixon. When the Saigon regime suddenly pulled out of the talks, Nixon did narrowly win the presidency.

All these latest circumstances -- the Frost/Nixon stage and screen dramas, the LBJ tape disclosures and then the death of Mark Felt -- have kept the nation's 37th president in the news and in the awareness of the American public like a clinging ghost of the troubled and turbulent past.

The continuing public appetite for information about the only American president ever to have resigned in disgrace is also seen in the seemingly endless publication of books about him. The latest has been an 881-page regurgitation of the saga called "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" by Rick Perlstein, who previously had resurrected another Republican political ghost in a book about Barry Goldwater.

Nixon has also made it widely back in print in various ruminations regarding the soon-to-depart White House incumbent and which of them had been a worse occupant of the Oval Office. In this regard at least, Nixon has often been viewed by some critics as not that bad after all.

It will be interesting to watch in the months and years ahead whether Nixon will yield to George W. Bush in the pantheon of presidents American liberals love to hate, by virtue of the anti-Dubya books that have already begun to approach flood stage.

The similarities shared by the two men -- both of them Republicans associated with an unpopular war and constantly under attack for perceived coarseness and personality flaws -- have been widely and relentlessly assailed, often to the point of ridicule.

But through it all, Nixon's image has managed to survive the kind of assault on his intellect to which Bush has had to suffer. Nixon continues to be widely regarded as having had a shrewd political mind, sustained perhaps by the books he wrote on foreign policy in his post-resignation years.

It's doubtful, though, that for all the current vehemence directed toward the departing 43rd president, he will ever attain in retirement the lasting power of the 37th as a continuing public bete noire, at least in liberal circles.