Thursday, May 5, 1994

We Came To Terms with Nixon

 THERE was a certain awkwardness in the air in the days following

  Richard Nixon's death. The questions lingered. How does a nation mourn

  its only president ever forced to resign from office? And what would be

  his legacy?

       Then the cautious and predictable assessments came weighing in,

  from Republican pundits who distanced themselves, from Democratic

  pundits, many of whom after 20 years still exhibited partisan outrage at

  "Tricky Dick." Nixon, they said, despite his accomplishments, would

  always be remembered for the Watergate break-in.

       Yet the mood at Nixon's funeral last week was nothing less than a


       "May the day of judging Nixon on anything less than his entire life

  and career come to a close," urged President Clinton, who himself came

  of political age during the Watergate era.

       What is one to make of the rehabilitation of Nixon, the once

  despised leader who resigned in disgrace and is now honored by a

  president who once opposed him?

       Nixon was, after all, an authoritarian president whose fatal flaw

  was to assume he was above the law. "When the president does it, it's

  not illegal," he once said. Such an attitude of "L'etat c'est moi"

  didn't sit well with a younger generation more inclined to question than

  to obey and who were horrified by this presidency that came to epitomize

  the excesses of authority: the killings at Kent State University, the

  Watergate break-in, the forced draft.

       Though he carried 49 states, I knew few of my generation who voted

  for him, or who would have voted for him had they been old enough back

  then. Rather, it was my parents^ generation who elected him. Among them

  was my father who, having arrived in this country after the upheavals of

  post-war Europe, supported Nixon primarily for his anti-communist

  stance. For him, a threat dismissed as red-baiting by others had turned

  out to be all too real. In the worldwide scheme of things, for him,

  Watergate was insignificant.

       I, myself, born during the prosperous years of the Fifties and

  coming of age during the idealistic Sixties, did not have that

  experience of those dark war years that loomed so large in my father's

  generation. What I remember instead is the optimism of my era: the war

  on poverty, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, a general

  philosophy of goodwill and infinite possibility _ and the incongruity of

  a remote war.

       Clearly, there was a gap between the formative experiences of the

  youth of that era and those of their parents.

       "Don't trust anyone over 30" was the slogan of those times, and

  there was no one who better articulated that dividing line between the

  long-haired, tie-dyed, idealistic, rebellious youth and their

  conventional, conservative parents than Nixon _ a reticent formal man,

  often portrayed walking along the beach in a suit and wingtip shoes.

       His was not a smooth personality in an age where TV slickness and

  glib repartee were becoming a measure of a man. In a way, he was our

  parents. In appearance and manner, our relaxed, blue-jeaned generation

  judged him ill at ease, his suit jacket buttoned up as armor, his

  trousers hitched too tight, his stiff wave, his inability to make (or

  impatience with) the inconsequential small talk that has now become the

  stuff of politics.

       Twenty years ago, we said bitterly that we would never come to

  terms with this authoritarian man, whose actions were marked by a

  stubbornness and point-blank refusal to admit he had done wrong. It

  was this tenacity  that made Nixon a tragic and disgraced figure

  in our eyes. Yet in this   very tenaciousness, he found his redemption.

  He did not give in to   bitterness.

       "Those who hate you don't win," he said, "unless you hate them _

  and then you destroy yourself."

       In his later years, he shared his extensive knowledge and expertise

  with all who would listen, the albatross of Watergate weighing on his

  neck. In the process, this prodigal father emerged as human, a softened

  and humbled man, sharing what he knows.

       And so, with the passage of time, we heard a different tally of his

  credits: his determination, his knowledge of foreign affairs, his love

  of his family.

       Surprisingly, Nixon seemed more at ease _ than he ever had been in

  the spotlight _ in his new role as a mentor to the very generation that

  once defied him.

       Some still say they will never come to terms with Nixon,

  remembering above all his ruthlessness and divisiveness. Yet it is clear

  he and the times have since moved on. And on that designated day of

  mourning last week, those who had not buried the hatchet seemed more

  than the exception than the rule.

(c) Olya Thompson in The Bergen Record 

No comments:

Post a Comment