In this day of the instant docudrama, a presentation of "The Final Days" seems like a treatise on ancient history. At a time when yesterday's headlines turn into tomorrow's miniseries, resurrection and recreation of the last days of President Richard Nixon is an anachronism set against the current television landscape. It has taken more than a dozen years for the TV craving for current-affairs material -- or not-so-current material -- to catch up with the best-selling book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who, as Washington Post reporters, led the coverage of the Watergate affair that lead to Nixon's downfall. The time lag still brought "The Final Days" to television too soon -- which is to say, at all -- to suit Mr. Nixon. A representative of the former president, who resigned in August 1974, has written the show's sponsor, AT&T, protesting Nixon's being portrayed without his consent. The letter reportedly suggested that the program be retitled "Reach Out and Smear Someone." More likely, the three-hour ABC presentation tonight at 8 may surprise some viewers by reaching out and touching them. Indeed, the professional Nixon-haters may find reason to protest that the depiction of Nixon is too sympathetic. But if this TV movie seems to have inordinate warmth, it's not that history or the Wood-stein book has been twisted. More likely it's because the producers of the show stumbled into an exceptional choice of actors to play Nixon. Lane Smith, a journeyman actor, may have permanently typecast himself with this one performance. His portrayal is neither caricature nor parody. Smith does not so much play Richard Nixon as he evokes him. And to think he almost ended up playing J. Fred Buzhardt. Between the time he was recommended for the part of Nixon and his arrival for an audition, confusion developed and he ended up reading for the part of the special White House counsel, a role eventually given to Richard Kiley. Fortunately, the error was caught and Smith got to read for the part of Nixon. When Smith pulls his pants up, buttons his suit jacket, rounds his shoulders a bit and puts a hand on his hip, he becomes the former president. "I love him," said Smith of Nixon, "as a character. He's an extraordinary character to play. The physicality, the tremendous dilemma that the man had to go through. And I think what we're trying to show here, that we did with the movie, is somebody that's going through a tremendous emotional turmoil in his life. "Everybody knows the stuff about him being a crook and everything like that. That's nothing new. But what about ... when you've had to go through terrible times in your life ... That's what I was interested in. Whether right or wrong, that has nothing to do with it as far as I'm concerned. It's showing a man going through this terrible dilemma and how he coped with it, and how he coped with his family." Smith copes with the role just fine, and screenwriter Hugh Whitemore copes with turning the 450-page book into a tight three-hour movie. Unfortunately, he does deprive Smith of a dramatic turn by omitting the scene described in the book in which the dejected president walked the hallways of the White House talking to the hanging portraits. Supplemental material from various memoirs by Julie Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Nixon is used to flesh out "The Final Days" and turn narrative into plot. Curiously, the character of Pat Nixon is given not a word of dialog. Another quirk: at one point, the principals read the headlines of a newspaper called the Washington Register. Whitemore has also given the teleplay a moment of high hilarity. During a conference at Camp David, Nixon gives a car to Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet general secretary ushers the president into the new Lincoln, jumps into the driver's seat, turns the ignition key and roars off down a mountain road, leaving a gaggle of Secret Service officers catatonic. With television's propensity for turning big books into big TV movies and miniseries, how did such a best-seller sit on the shelf for so many years? Simple. "We refused to sell the rights," said Bernstein. "When the book came out -- I get a stomach ache when I think about hits -- we had an offer of a million dollars to sell the rights. And we didn't. "It seemed at the time that there was a lot of stuff flying around about how we {he and Woodward} had done this for crass, commercial reasons." "The Final Days" followed publication of the pair's "All the President's Men," their account of their reporting of the Watergate story. That book was turned into a hit movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the two reporters. "There was a column in the New York Times by Bill Safire that I remember, questioning why 'The Final Days' had come out within a month of the movie of 'All the President's Men,' when, in fact, we just got it out as quick as we could because the information was so incredible and explosive." Years later, Bernstein said, when approached by executive producer Stu Samuels and ABC executives, he and Woodward talked it over and decided to go ahead with a television movie. While the production lacks the potentially stunning scene of Nixon talking to pictures on the wall, his farewell speech to the Cabinet and members of the White House staff is handled beautifully. The highly personal rambling reminiscence was probably the only time in his presidency that Nixon so fully opened up publicly. The scene begins in the East Room. Then the speech becomes a voice-over as the former president and his family make their way to a waiting helicopter. The Nixon farewell wave from the door of the aircraft is shot, dramatically, from behind Lane Smith. It's an affecting scene, no matter what your politics. Too affecting? "You know," said Smith, reflecting on the question of a sympathetic portrayal, "when they got after Nixon, there were more people investigating Nixon than ... investigated the Kennedy assassination. And so you can imagine this guy here on the end of all this negativity ... "This is a Greek tragedy. I don't think we have anything else like it in American history. It's an incredible story."