Embrace Nixon if you will but check your pockets


Bill Clinton has finally gone too far. This touchy-feely, embrace-the-people business is OK up to a point. And that point -- let's be perfectly clear on this -- is when you find yourself inviting Dick Nixon over to the house for coffee and danish.

Don't you think Clinton would have to be pretty deep into his list of famous-people-I'd-like-to-meet before he gets to Nixon? I'd have him slotted right after Pat Sajak.

And yet, Nixon was at the White House on Monday, chatting up Clinton on foreign policy. All I can say is I hope somebody checked the silver.

If for little else, you have to give Nixon credit for perseverance. The man won't go away. Superman dies, and Nixon dines with world leaders -- and he doesn't even have to pick up the check.

In this latest comeback -- as commentator and Nixon-enemies-list alumnus Daniel Schorr points out -- Nixon is back running for ex-president. He wants to be perceived as Jimmy Carter without the tool chest. He wants to be our kindly, old Uncle Richie, and he's not going anywhere, dammit, until we say we like him.

It was 30 years ago he told us we wouldn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. It was 18 years since he left the White House. I'll never forget the scene as he and Pat took off in Chopper One, with David Eisenhower hanging from the bottom of the helicopter. And still he's here. He's always here, like a big stain on your shirt.

As the enduring symbol of the dark side of the American century, Nixon sticks around, and not just to remind us to put "gate" at the end of all future scandals.

You know what he is? He's the ex-spouse from hell. Once you've divorced him, not only do you not want to get married again, you don't even want to date anymore. You don't even want to leave the house. As long as there's a Nixon, we know never to give our complete trust to any president.

That's his job and he does it well. Kissinger apologizes. Not Tricky Dick. What he does is sue for his tape collection (just be thankful they weren't CDs, or we'd really be talking serious money).

Remember that story? Late last year, a court ruled the government, already $4 trillion in debt, will have to pay Nixon possibly millions of dollars for his papers and tapes that were impounded in 1974 because, well, Nixon might have made a Watergate-sized bonfire of them. He has been fighting for the rights to them ever since.

There are 42 million items in all, including the biggest tape collection this side of Casey Kasem's. Nixon taped all conversations in the Oval Office, the Cabinet room, the Lincoln Sitting Room (featuring that priceless tape of Mary Todd telling Abe, "Not tonight, dear").

Only about 2 percent of the tapes have ever been made public. Seymour Hersh, the brilliant newsman, got possession of some of the unreleased tapes and wrote about them in the New Yorker a few months ago. You don't have to wonder why Nixon has fought so long and hard to have the tapes suppressed.

Here's some of what Hersh found: When George Wallace was shot, Nixon dispatched E. Howard Hunt to the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin. Hunt's job was to plant McGovern campaign material at the scene, hoping thereby to smear a political rival.

Fortunately, Hunt arrived too late to obstruct justice. And so, Oliver Stone missed a chance at another political conspiracy movie.

That's the real Nixon.

Then there's Nixon As He Wants Us To Remember Him. This Nixon goes to Russia as a statesman and reports back to Clinton, who pretends that Nixon gets to take an honored place in the club of ex-presidents.

This Nixon gets invited to the White House when he probably should be wintering in Elba.

We can understand Nixon's motives for wanting to be seen as a senior statesman, but what's in it for Clinton? Let's just assume he didn't have Nixon over to get Bob Hope's home phone number. Let's also assume that he could have learned Nixon's views on America's relationship with Russia without a White House tour.

Clinton is, of course, the master of symbols. He wants to help Russia out in a time when many don't want to spend the money. Having Nixon at his side gives Clinton some standing in the eyes of certain conservative legislators.

Then again, maybe Clinton just wanted the chance to ask Nixon what Elvis was really like.

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