The question no longer is: Where was Richard Nixon on the night of June 16, 1972? The question now is: Did we - the nation - do the right thing? At least that struck me as the gnawing subliminal issue raised by Nixon's first two television appearances with David Frost.
Typically, Nixon came to us as both the Wicked Witch of the East and the Good Witch of the North - conniving and hopeless on Watergate, plausible and impressive on foreign affairs. Did we let a minor matter get the better of our judgment, then? Were Nixon's offenses really all that distinctive in light of what we now know about his immediate predecessors? Those of us who were 100 per cent certain about the need to remove him from office at the time might as well start thinking about these questions now. They're not going to get any easier as the years go by.
That such unfamiliar, even unwelcome, thoughts should cross one's mind ind a mere three years after Armageddon is testimony to the well-known alchemical power of time. At one level, there is a very simple explanation for this. The passage of time transforms our view of the man - whether Nixon or any of the other loved-and-hated figures of the age - by eliminating whatever threat he presented and diminishing even the memory of it. The little red on-the-air light had hardly gone out on Lyndon Johnson's "abdication" speech, after all, when his most ferocious and intemperate critics took to the microphones to commemorate his great accomplishments - a process that would have gained much more momentum before his death had Johnson not continued periodically to lunge back into the mainstream of events.
What we gain as the contentious figure himself subsides, taking most of the contention with him, is generally acknowledged to be "perspective." The farther we get from the passions of the moment, the better we are able to see the fellow whole. And contemporary ideas of villainy are notoriously vulnerable to this process, as the latter-day rehabilitation of everyone from Richard III to Boss Tweed makes clear. So with Richard Nixon removed to San Clemente it does become easier to ponder his achievements and to be less stingy about them. But none of this helps us make the crucial judgment as to which was - and should have been - more important to us: Nixon's achievements or his well-documented, not to say criminal, defects.
In fact, the much-vaunted perspective of time can bring its own special distortions. It robs us of context; it makes us seem churlish or trivial even to bring up behavior that can no longer by any stretch of imagination be said to threaten anyone.Who gives a damn anymore who said what to whom on March 21 of 1973? We know what we think about that - but was it really more consequential than, say, the opening to China? Not for nothing do politicians, Richard Nixon prominent among them, speak lovingly of what "history" will do for their reputations. By history they tend to mean posterity, which is another way of saying a lot of people who either weren't around at the time or have forgotten what was going on. Anyone who contemplates how people on all sides of the old McCarthyism issue of the 1950s are rendering the history of the period, not to mention the bizarre way it is viewed by the young, will know that history in this sense is often an optical illusion.
So let's dredge it all up, since that is the only way in which we can measure its importance. The test does not lie in whether we can put the squalor, large and small, of those days out mind. The test - and it is muchharder - lies in judging whether anything for which Nixon was called to account was sufficient ground for kicking him out of office. And here, to be fair, we have to dredge up a whole lot more than our recollections of the Watergate "horrors," as John Mitchell so vividly called them. We have to go the modified, limited Victor Lasky route - facing up to those horrors that were perpetrated in our time by a lot of people who were not Richard Nixon. Such as, for example: JFK, Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Lasky, who is the indefatigable compiler of every known fact and rumor concerning the derelictions of the Kennedys, Johnson and others, has just come forth with another book on the subject. As usual, he overloads the circuit; there is no hear say too tenuous and no allegation too farfetched for him to include. But I don't see how anyone can dismiss his obsession out of hand. Only consider the centerpieces of his indictment: Chappaquiddick, Mrs.Exner and the Mafia caper, the attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, the bugging and tapping of individuals who had given political displeasure but had not committed any crime, the political rough stuff that involved what we were later to call "dirty tricks" and "abuses of power" in the Nixon context.
Surely Lasky is right in believing that there has been monstrous hypocrisy on the part of many of Richard Nixon's antagonists in failing to show anything like the concern about these offenses that they showed when Richard Nixon got in the soup. I would even stipulate a couple of further propositions likely to get me stigmatized as a traitor to my ink-stained class: I think the media have been remarkably unenergetic in pursuing much of this material, and I also think that had some of it been known at the time, it might have constituted impeachable offenses.
But that doesn't do a thing for Richard Nixon. His case was unique. He committed a crime, was caught, and tried to lie his way out. For more than two years he looked the nation in the eye, said yes he heard its question - and lied. Tonight, he would say, he wanted to talk to us "from my hear" . . . and there would be more lies, ever more elaborate lies that brought down people and dirtied institutions as he sought frantically and recklessly to hide. There was nothing, as it seemed, that he would not risk or undermine in furtherance of his escape, no personal or public value that didn't get heaved over the side before it was over.
And the public watched it all - and knew. Up until the very end people who were politically and temperamentally inclined to support Nixon begged him to come clean. He couldn't, and in fact he still can't. There was no way out of the condition he had created except for him to leave office, voluntarily or by means of impeachment. These weren't Johnson lies or Kennedy deceits. This was a very precise, deliberate response to a question the public insisted he answer. And by August 1974 he had no choice but to answer truthfully or get out. I found myself thinking the other night, as Nixon held forth engagingly on detente, how very odd it was that he understood so clearly the importance of establishing his "creditbility" with Brezhnev, but did not understand the price of losing it with the people who had put him in office.