But Nixon's been under the hood Sure he abused the presidency


WHEN Bill Clinton invited Richard Nixon into the Oval Office for a private chat this week, there were predictable howls of rage and dismay.

President Bill had obviously gone bonkers with this "diversity" idea.

Gays in the military were bad enough, but now he's hanging out with Watergate's infamous Unindicted Co-conspirator.

Tricky Dick a guest in the White House, where he plotted, lied and stomped on the U.S. Constitution? Lock up the silverware. Hide the red telephone.

You'd think Mr. Clinton had arranged a state dinner for Saddam Hussein.

Or draped a Medal of Freedom around the scrawny neck of cultist David Koresh.

Critics blasted Mr. Clinton as a patsy for the former president's endless attempts to transmogrify himself from crook to elder statesman. "When President Clinton promised 'change,' I didn't think he had this in mind," wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

"It's all a part of a very successful Nixon campaign for ex-president," said broadcaster Daniel Schorr, proud of being on Mr. Nixon's hate list.

My reaction: So what? And I speak as one who has held Mr. Nixon in enormous contempt. I covered the House impeachment hearings 20 years ago. If justice prevailed, Dick Nixon would have joined his 19 White House and campaign aides in the slammer.

But this knee-jerk anger over Mr. Clinton's parley with Dick feels hollow and dated. It's as moot as Trotskyites and Leninists arguing over Russian history. Who cares about Mr. Nixon now?

The charge that Mr. Clinton was being "used" to promote a Nixon comeback seems silly. Whatever else he turns out to be, this is not a president dumb about P.R. You didn't see any television or newspaper photos of Bill and Dick in chummy chat, did you?

Anyway, no matter how many times he revisits the White House (Jimmy Carter and George Bush had him in, too), Mr. Nixon isn't going to be "rehabilitated" at age 80. All his books, TV interviews and speeches can't reverse history. Mr. Nixon's reputation is frozen -- a racist, paranoid politician who abused the presidency.

But give the devil his due.

Mr. Nixon knows foreign policy. He's been under the hood. Mr. Clinton read Mr. Nixon's op-ed piece on Russia in the New York Times (it was as long-winded as most Clinton speeches) and invited him over for advice. Simple as a rookie asking Henry Aaron how to hit the curve ball.

If Boris Yeltsin falls, argued Mr. Nixon, "the peace dividend will go down the tubes" and Mr. Clinton's economic plan "will have to be taken off the table."

That's a fear Mr. Clinton shares. Since Mr. Nixon's warning, Mr. Yeltsin edges nearer the brink. To survive, he threatens to put Russia under emergency powers and disband parliament. If Mr. Yeltsin tumbles, perhaps before Mr. Clinton's April summit, the crisis could make Bosnia and Somalia look like tea parties.

"Lord knows, we pray he survives," said former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

"We've been spending $300 billion a year combating Soviet military might," Defense Secretary Les Aspin told Congress. "Without Yeltsin, or somebody like him in power, we're not going to be able to reduce that amount. That's what Nixon's saying."

Mr. Nixon rightly sees Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Clinton with linked fates. Each is wrenching his country in a U-turn away from the Cold War. Mr. Clinton, who was pitching Thursday for his program switching defense to civilian jobs, hinted at the kinship.

"I have confidence in him," Mr. Clinton said of Mr. Yeltsin. "I'll work with him as long as I can. He's trying to change the economy and bring democracy -- not easy, even here."

American bucks, after empty promises, might help bail out Mr. Yeltsin. Even jacking up the $417 million to $700 million in technical aid will be a tough pitch in Washington's cost-cutting mania. As Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., says of new Congressfolk: "To get here they all said, 'America first, take care of things at home.' "

That's why President Clinton needs Mr. Nixon in an unholy alliance. He can use all the help he can get -- George Bush's, too -- convincing Republicans to vote for Russian aid.

Who better than one of the 20th century's most virulent commie-haters to argue for dollars for ex-Reds?

Instead of Mr. Nixon "using" Mr. Clinton, maybe it's the other way around.

Sure, their private gabfest was a jolt of irony. After all, Mr. Clinton's first post-college Washington job offer was to work on the House panel impeaching Mr. Nixon. (He suggested Hillary Rodham instead.) Yes, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Clinton together were a generational oddity -- the 1940s Hit Parade meeting 1990s MTV.

Spare me, though, the hand-wringing about Mr. Clinton as a naive fall guy aiding Richard Nixon's comeback from dishonor. A thousand visits to the Oval Office won't lift Tricky out of history's gutter.

You want to pick a safe, ask a safecracker.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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