A recent magazine article reports that when Henry Kissinger was new at being Richard Nixon's national security adviser, he found himself seated next to Pat Nixon at a White House dinner and proceeded to butter her up, telling her what a wonderful man her husband was. In response, Mrs. Nixon shot Kissinger a look and said, "Haven't you seen though him yet?" Once again, I hurt for Richard Nixon.
I hurt for him, too, all through John D. Ehrlichman's book, "Witness to Power," in which Ehrlichman takes shot after shot at the man he once served and for whom he went to jail. He describes Nixon as weak, vacillating, inattentive, rambling, sometimes drunk, almost always petty and almost never magnanimous. According to Ehrlichman, Nixon could not even get his dog to come to him. Again, I hurt for the man.
Kissinger, too, has had some harsh things to say about Nixon (including what one reviewer called "unmistakable charges of anti-Semitism") as does almost everyone who has ever served him. Indeed, if there has been a president with such an inability to inspire loyalty, I can't think of him. As a result, we know more about his personal life, his drinking, his character or lack of it, than we do about almost any other president.
On that score, Nixon himself has been forthcoming. He has cried in public. He has praised his mother and cursed the press. He has lost his temper, showed his wounds, acted irrationally, cursed, sweated, lied about not lying ("Your president is no crook"), valued courage above all things and showed precious little of it when it really counted.
In some sense, then, he has been the most human of our recent presidents. Ronald Reagan is God's little joke on the rest of us--lucky, healthy, personable and, as the pictures from the beaches of Barbados prove, a pin-up boy at the age of 71. Jimmy Carter remains an enigma. Lyndon Johnson was larger than life itself--and richer to boot. Gerald Ford, for all his ordinariness, was about as ordinary as any football hero-cum male model could be. Dwight Eisenhower was a Gerald Ford with brains and John Kennedy was . . . well, he glittered.
But not Nixon. His presidency is the triumph of the less than ordinary man. He was a bundle of weaknesses, dangerous like a shy dog. As a man, he was an open wound, and the presidency only exacerbated that. He expected people to talk behind his back, and they did. He expected them to think little of him, and they did. He thought people would look down on him for his background, and they did. He proves, if anything, that even paranoids can have enemies.
This feeling of sympathy for Nixon which sweeps over me from time to time like recurrent bouts of malaria does not mean that he stands forgiven for Watergate and, before that, for his Red-baiting and for being, over a long period of time, a political hooligan. He did what he did, earning his own misfortune, and if people are not loyal to him today, it may be because, in the end, Richard Nixon was never loyal to them or anything except himself.
But there is something tasteless in all these men who once worked for Nixon--who at the time praised his statesmanship, sagacity, honesty and general wonderfulness--now using the man the way Henny Youngman uses his wife. He has become material, used always to highlight someone else's brilliance or wisdom. The end result is that even Nixon-haters such as myself, people with memories going back to Helen Gahagan Douglas, have felt the stirrings of sympathy for the man. We don't like the company we keep.
In that sense, Richard Nixon is being dignified by the abuse of him. His silence in the face of what has been said not only increases his stature, but diminishes that of his critics. His high crimes and misdemeanors become scenes from soap operas. His use of the FBI, Secret Service, IRS and CIA to harry his enemies becomes a collection of anecdotes--tales about drinking bouts or crying bouts or bouts of self-pity.
In the end, the abuse of Nixon transforms him into the victim he has always seen himself as being. Not only does he feel sorry for himself but, reluctantly, so do I. Ultimately, the people who insult Nixon do him a service. They vindicate his own view of the world. And that, in the end, is an insult to us all.