Can Nixon Be Rehabilitated?

Article excerpt

"YOU HAVE saved this country, Mr. President," Henry Kissinger told Richard Nixon on April 17, l973. "The history books will show that - when no-one will know what Watergate means." Depending on where you stand, that pronouncement either confirms your view of Kissinger as one of the most prescient men in history, or reminds you why you always hated him.

Either way, the historians have not yet entirely caught up with the President's National Security Advisor: Nixon is still, for the most part, a reviled figure in American politics, better known for the way in which he left the White House 25 years ago this month than for anything he did while he was there.

To a surprising degree, Nixon is still with America. He remains a figure of popular culture, the star of a new knockabout comedy called Dick!, which is this year's political hit film (last year we had Wag the Dog). He is frequently referred to as the embodiment of political intrigue and malfeasance, even in an era which has plenty of other negative role models. Things have shifted, of course - just as Nixon intended and thought that they would. From within a few years of his resignation, he was intent on a comeback in the hearts and especially in the minds of Americans.

From his first interview with David Frost in 1977 until his death in 1994, everything which Nixon did was geared towards rebuilding his image, restoring some lustre to his personal reputation, if not his Presidency. And in many respects, he succeeded.

He advised both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and Bill Clinton spoke kind words after his death. At roughly five-year intervals since Nixon left office, the newspapers and magazines have taken a quick look to see if the man had been rehabilitated. But it is rather like opening the oven to see if the souffle has risen yet - every time there is that same dish of soggy, unpromising goo, with no signs that it will rise.

Nixon's record is now being re-examined again. The latest effort is a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Irwin Gellman, covering Nixon's time in Congress. These are key years for the disparagers of Richard Milhous Nixon, years in which, according to his accusers, he zealously joined in the McCarthyite persecutions and participated in dark conspiracies in order to win power and influence.

Gellman looks closely at the accusations of Red-baiting and finds them not proven. In general he draws a sympathetic portrait of a man who was fighting, from a humble background, for political power in much the same way as many others. Neither corrupt nor evil, Nixon is just another politician, and an admirable one in many ways, "a success story in a troubled era, one who steered a sensible anti- Communist course against the excess of McCarthy and other extreme right-wingers." The book is only the first volume of three.

Nixon revisionism has also centred on his record of domestic activity. Professor Mel Small, in his book, The Presidency of Richard Nixon, describes a man who is far more "liberal" in the American sense - which is to say left-wing - than anyone thought at the time.

He lowered the voting age to 18, created the Environmental Protection Agency and was even in a small way responsible for the triumph of America's women's soccer team - he created a programme which increased financial support for women's athletic activities. "Nixon wasn't liberal in his philosophy," he says, "But in terms of the legislation he signed off on, he clearly was the country's last liberal president." Gellman and Small are by no means the first to attempt a resuscitation of Nixon's reputation. There was, for instance, the biography by Jonathan Aitken (yes, that Jonathan Aitken, and with friends like that, who needs enemies). But this is part of what promises to be a more serious evaluation, based on access to all of Nixon's papers. So should we now expect to see Nixon the hero shining through? …