1974: Richard Nixon
03/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
He was reelected in one of the most overwhelming landslides in American history. He conducted the last successful foreign policy this nation has known. He opened relations with China, warmed the big chill between Washington and Moscow and, through the agency of Henry Kissinger, a man he plucked from academic obscurity, almost laid the foundation of peace in the Middle East. Still, in the end, he was a crook.
Richard Nixon. Among leaders of the English-speaking world, few have inspired so much fealty or earned so much obloquy since Richard III—and he was accused of infanticide and treason. Nixon never lost the capacity to amaze. He did it on that grim morning in 1962 when he ignored the cooler heads around him to deliver a melancholy harangue: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." And he did it in 1972, sipping tea with Chairman Mao. But he did it most of all with Watergate.
It has been the fashion among his supporters to argue that Nixon didn't do anything that other Presidents hadn't done before. Indeed, only a schoolchild would imagine that vindictiveness and pettiness and anti-Semitism and (expletives deleted) were introduced to the Oval Office by Richard Milhous Nixon.
And, yes, people were out to get him. When an obscure former White House aide named Alexander Butterfield blurted out the facts about the White House taping system, it sent a thrill through the Democratic majority in Congress. Each of the 1,254 pages of tape transcripts that trickled out of the White House contained fodder for cocktail party dissections of the man—and even before the tapes were released, congressional staffers were playing them at dinner parties for the delectation of their friends.
But was he just doing what everybody did? No. There was the smoking gun, of course—the tapes that proved that he knew his men were trying to cover up their connection to the bungled burglary at the Democratic Party's Watergate offices. But most of all, there were the plumbers—the private goon squad owned and operated by the White House staff—who broke into the homes of private citizens and otherwise played havoc with the Bill of Rights. Nearly three years after his resignation Nixon would grant an interview to David Frost—for some $1 million—and grumble, "I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish." It was as close as he ever came to admitting wrongdoing.
In the years since stepping down, he has resembled nothing so much as the Ancient Mariner, wandering the earth with the albatross of Watergate always upon him. He moved first to San Clemente, Calif., then to New York's Upper East Side, where he purchased a town house when no apartment-building board would have him. Then it was off to a secluded hamlet in New Jersey. Now, after a brief struggle, he has won acceptance to a Park Avenue building. Pat is with him, the woman he proposed to on their first date and then followed around on her dates with other men until she accepted his proposal. She has suffered two strokes, is rarely seen in public and never accompanies him on his frequent trips about the globe. "You'd never know she had even been sick," he said of her recently.
Where did he go wrong? Most people who look for the answer turn to his childhood, to his bad-tempered father, Frank, and his ambivalent mother, Hannah. "I was born in a house my father built," Nixon began his memoirs; after six decades, and greatness and disgrace, he tried still to establish a closeness to his father in memory that wasn't there in life. "My mother was a saint," he said in his last speech as President. "But nobody will ever write a book about my mother." That summer, a book by John Kennedy's mother was on the best-seller list. Even in the moment of his greatest anguish, Nixon was defensive of his birthright, as defensive as he had been when, steaming toward a landslide, he stonewalled and covered up and transformed what should have been a third-rate burglary into a world tragedy.
Today, at age 71, he is reemerging. On television he speaks—often wisely—on world affairs. He comments at moments of great import, like the passing of Yuri Andropov. His thoughts on foreign policy, now in book form, are respectfully received. Yet there is the consciousness that something is wrong, the feeling, as his old prosecutor, Sam Ervin, said last month, that "he ought to confess the wrongdoing." But he is Richard Nixon, and he never will.