WASHINGTON -- During the 1972 presidential campaign, 26-year-old Bill Clinton labored in Texas -- vainly, it turned out -- to defeat Richard M. Nixon. Two years later, Hillary Rodham, Mr. Clinton's future wife, was a junior lawyer who worked on Mr. Nixon's impeachment proceedings.
That was a long time ago, though, and yesterday Mr. Nixon accepted an invitation and came to visit one of his old haunts, the White House, which is now the Clintons' home.
The issue under discussion --how to assist Russia as it moves toward free-market democracy -- is certainly important. But the image of last night's private meeting between Mr. Clinton and the Republican ex-president whom young Democrats of his generation grew up hating is even more arresting.
"Sure, it's ironic," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said yesterday as he was leaving the White House. "It's also smart."
Mr. Frank is a well-known liberal who had little use for Mr. Nixon when the former president was active in government.
But then, the collapse of the Soviet Union has caused a bit of confusion in U.S. politics. The first thing that happened as the Cold War was ending was that a Republican president, George Bush, appointed a venerated Democratic party leader, Robert S. Strauss, as the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.
"Irony is too weak a word for what's going on these days," said Ellis Woodward, a former Carter administration official. "But let's face it, Nixon has something to offer."
In a simpler age, John G.Schmitz, an archconservative politician from California, was asked what he thought of President Nixon's going to China. "I don't mind him going to China," the devilish Mr. Schmitz replied. "It's his coming back I object to."
Mr. Clinton may not have wanted Mr. Nixon to go or come back from Russia, but come back he did -- and with a host of ideas on how the United States can help Russia.
Since he resigned the presidency in 1974 in the midst of scandal, Mr. Nixon has craved a place for himself other than as the heavy in a hundred books about Watergate.
Mr. Clinton's problem is more immediate: In less than a month, he meets Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. The agenda for the summit in Vancouver, British Columbia, is nothing less than how the United States can help preserve the fragile new democracy in Russia.
Mr. Nixon thought he could help, but according to those close to him, he despaired of reaching Mr. Clinton. The two men had never met, and Mr. Clinton did not respond to a congratulatory letter the former president sent after the Clinton victory in November.
"Here we were thinking Clinton was guilty of bad form, but the letter was never given to him," said Roger Stone, a longtime conservative adviser to Mr. Nixon. "Clinton was mortified when he found out."
Mr. Stone passed word to a Clinton adviser, Paul Begala, that Mr. Nixon was worried the Bush State Department hadn't conveyed to the new administration the urgency of the needs in the former Soviet Union.
Mr. Begala argued that the president should meet Mr. Nixon.
Dick Morris, a pollster who is close to the Clinton family, made the same pitch to both Mr. Clinton and Mrs. Clinton, a source said.
"Morris told the Clintons that if Nixon was received at the White House, he couldn't come back and kick you in the teeth."
As it turned out, however, Mr. Nixon -- who'd been hard on President Bush on the issue of Russia -- wasn't thinking of criticizing Mr. Clinton just yet: He liked what he saw in the new president.
"He told me on the plane to Poland that he was quite impressed with Clinton's budget proposals," recalled Dimitri Simes, a Russian analyst and expatriate with close ties to Mr. Nixon. "Nixon was impressed that there was a real leader in the White House."
Thus began the Nixon-Clinton mutual admiration society.
Mr. Clinton, urged now by a number of other influential political voices, including former California Rep. Tony Coelho, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and Mr. Strauss, placed a call from the White House to Park Ridge, N.J., Wednesday night.
For 40 minutes, the former president shared with the new president his ideas of how to help Russia without bankrupting the United States.
Mr. Nixon reciprocated by writing favorably of Mr. Clinton Friday in a New York Times op-ed article on Russia. Then it was Mr. Clinton's turn to respond, and he did, publicly praising the article and inviting Mr. Nixon to visit.
Where will all this strange-bedfellow business end? Is there some kind of official job in this for Mr. Nixon as an elder statesman?
"Most unlikely," said Mr. Simes. "Richard Nixon is a very active 80-year-old. But he's still an 80-year-old."