Sixteen years after he resigned the presidency to avoid impeachment for his role in the Watergate cover-up, Richard Nixon still lives in a world of friends and enemies. Few Americans are neutral in their opinion of this most enduring and persistent of contemporary political figures, in part because Nixon himself resists a balanced appraisal of his presidency.
The extremity of Nixon's opinions and the extremity of opinions about him were evident in the controversies that swirled around the dedication of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., Thursday, an event that properly attracted the participation of President Bush and former presidents Reagan and Ford.
Nixon's designated librarian at first expressed what he later said was his personal opinion that Bob Woodward and others who lack appreciation for the Nixon presidency should not be allowed access to the library archives. Nixon rescinded this ban, but his library foundation chairman, William Simon, expressed a Nixonian rationale for screening suspect scholars by saying, "Academics and historians have always hated Nixon."
Well, not quite. Despite Nixon's failure to end the Vietnam War on his watch, even many of his harshest critics among the despised academics agree that he made significant contributions to world peace. While the opening to China is supposed to be Nixon's ticket to historical redemption, he is even more likely to warrant historical credit for the policy of de'tente with the Soviet Union, which marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
But Nixon always suffered and suffers still from the delusion that he could wrest control of history from the historians. As a candidate, he instructed reporters how to write their stories. As a president, he determined his fate by taping his own conversations, because he did not trust historians to write the story straight. As a memoirist who has written truly fascinating books, he has baldly misrepresented the record of Watergate.
Nixon's great strength as a president, as he has demonstrated in perceptive analyses of Mikhail Gorbachev, was his insight into the dynamics of the Soviet system. There must have been times when he envied the ability of his adversaries to control their own history, as Nixon has vainly sought to do in his eight consistently interesting books. Nixon knew about Lavrenti Beria, the Soviet secret police chief, who after he was purged became a "non-person" in history as well as life. His entry in the Soviet Encyclopedia was replaced by an enlargement of the next alphabetical entry, the Bering Sea.
There are several Bering Sea mysteries in the new Nixon Library, including the omission of any record of the remarkable "you-won't-have-Nixon-to-kick around anymore" diatribe delivered by Nixon after his loss in the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign. And there were several non-persons who missed out on being members of the cast of thousands invited to the Nixon Library dedication. One absentee was Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who was said to be hurt at not getting an invitation. Also uninvited were John Dean, who identified Watergate as a "cancer on the presidency," and John Ehrlichman, who was forced to resign and then described by Nixon as one of the two "finest public servants it has been my privilege to know."
None of them was seen or heard last week. But all three have written books and testified, and all will be heard by history. Beria is no longer a forbidden topic in the Soviet Union.
Journalists, as well as Nixon, are fond of flinging around the term "judgment of history" as if this were as readily discernible as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In fact, such judgments are ever-changing. Thomas Jefferson was once so underrated as a president that there was criticism of Franklin Roosevelt when he changed the Democrats' traditional Andrew Jackson Day dinners to "Jefferson-Jackson dinners." The reputations of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower have risen in recent years; the reputation of Ronald Reagan has fallen rapidly since he left the presidency.
Nixon will always be the first, and with luck, the only president in U.S. history who was forced to resign. He will also be remembered for failing to end the war in Vietnam, for understanding the importance of de'tente and arms control with the Soviet Union and for recognizing the reality of the People's Republic of China. He should be allowed to enjoy his day in the sun at Yorba Linda knowing that history will reach its own conclusions after he and his critics are long gone.