WASHINGTON -- Alexander Pope's line that "to err is human, to forgive divine" puts Bill Clinton in the angel category. Inviting Richard Nixon back to the White House he despoiled with his various Watergate and associated antics was like a bank president having Willie Sutton in for coffee.
The argument will be made that Nixon's wisdom in dealing with post-Cold War Russia, fashioned from several visits there, can be of value to the new president in shaping his policies toward it. The burden of Nixon's message, as expressed in an op-ed piece in the New York Times last week, is that the United States must provide financial aid to the government of Boris Yeltsin or face ZZTC much worse alternative if Yeltsin falls.
This is hardly an exclusive view held by Nixon, and, more to the point, it could have been obtained in a phone call. In inviting Nixon to the White House, Clinton has contributed to the public rehabilitation of a man who, for whatever his talents, committed heinous crimes against his country's Constitution and his countrymen -- and never confessed to them.
Maybe Clinton's motive was to show he was a nice guy, or to curry favor with conservatives who to this day will go only as far as Nixon himself in admitting that, in his memorable phrase, "mistakes were made" in Watergate.
But what the White House invitation from a Democratic president does is make it all the easier for Nixon to act as if Watergate really was no more than, as his press secretary Ron Ziegler called it at the time, "an alleged third-rate burglary attempt."
It was not all that surprising when a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, invited Nixon to join other former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to represent him at the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
That event inspired Republican Sen. Bob Dole to crack at a Gridiron dinner that it reminded him of the three monkeys -- "See no evil, hear no evil and -- evil."
Nor was it especially eye-opening when another Republican president, George Bush, had Nixon in for dinner to report on his trip to China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
On each of these occasions, stories appeared about the "resurrection" of Nixon -- in keeping with his post-Watergate determination to regain respectability. Reresurrection would be more like it, considering Nixon's rise from the political ashes after his 1960 defeat at the hands of John F. Kennedy.
But a Democratic president, and this Democratic president, entertaining Nixon at the scene of his former crimes is something else again. Clinton, it was all too well publicized in the 1992 presidential campaign, was a fervent protester and demonstrator against the Vietnam War as student in England during the Nixon years, and afterward took part in the George McGovern campaign against Nixon in 1972.
At the same time, Nixon -- after the 1970 American "incursion" of Cambodia -- was calling campus war protesters "bums" who were "blowing up campuses [and] burning books," and was putting young anti-war students like Clinton under surveillance by his henchmen. The "bums" remark came only days before several student protesters were gunned down by National Guardsmen at Kent State.
With all of this recalled now, Clinton would seem to be a candidate for sainthood in the forgiveness department.
It can be argued that Nixon, after all the abuse heaped on him in the wake of Watergate and his resignation in disgrace, has suffered enough and has tried to rehabilitate himself by offering to the nation his experience in the field of foreign affairs.
But what is needed more from him is an acknowledgment not simply that "mistakes were made" but that he made them, and that he understands the damage he inflicted on the fabric of American political life with his serious political crimes.
You would think that a man in his position would be content to live out his days in seclusion, but that has never been Nixon's way. Like the man who came to dinner and stayed all year, he seems determined, like the poor, to be always with us. Except the poor seldom get invited to the White House.