FEAR OF FLYING, fear of heights, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of cats -- to these may now be added fear of Richard Nixon, or at least fear of Richard Nixon's retrieval of his lost presidential respectability. There is something downright phobic -- and strangely insecure -- about much of the initial response to the news that Jimmy Carter has invited the former president to attend this month's state dinner for Chinese Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping at the White House.
Mr. Nixon's conduct of the office of the presidency, his flight from it in disgrace, and the degradation he acquiesced in, but refused to acknowledge, in accepting the presidential pardon from his successor, are all real and abiding truths about his public life. They are not subject to erasure from a tape or obliteration by attendance at a state dinner -- or at a hundred other public events. And at some point, the ceaseless worry that it will be otherwise suggests not just a lack of confidence in the importance and solidity of the official findings that drove Mr. Nixon 'from office, but also a bizarrely wishful, even childlike, approach to making the hoped-for come true: i.e., the idea that by keeping Mr. Nixon confined to his California estate and seeing to it that he doesn't appear anywhere in polite company -- and only by these means -- can you make sure that the fallen former president won't return to public life, beaming and forgiven.
We see it differently. We think Mr. Nixon's misconduct in office was gross and reprehensible enough to permit his appearance at a White House dinner with no apprehensions whatever about his staying on. And it doesn't take a political genius to see what advantages will accrue to the Carter administration from the proffered and accepted invitation. Our sense of it is that the presence of Mr. Nixon -- along with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and former President Ford, if he decides to come -- could go a certain way to neutralizing, or at least scrambling, the Republican-led opposition to acceptance of Mr. Carter's arrangements for "normalizing" relations with the People's Republic of China and more or less "de-normalizing" them with the government of Taiwan.
Beyond that, there is the fact that Richard Nixon had a large and surely critical hand in transforming the Sino-American relationship into its currently improved condition. On that ground, as President Carter observed, he surely has claim to a place at the table. And he has also made a trip back to China, since his fall from power, at the invitation of the Chinese, who quite evidently regard him as a friend where their own large national interests are concerned. So politics, diplomacy and courtesy came together, in arguing for this invitation. You have to have a minimum of faith in the wit of the American people and even less faith in the seriousness of the festival of criminal behavior that brought the Nixon administration down to think that appearance at an event such as this means the beginning of the end of the End.