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Life With Father - And Nixon Victimized hero or unvarnished crook? For years, my father and I had argued about Tricky Dick. Now it was time to let the man speak for himself.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maybe it's no accident that my father and I developed the peculiar bond we have regarding Richard Nixon and Watergate.

After all, the same June weekend in 1972 that burglars were creeping through the Watergate office complex in Washington, my father was visiting the capital with his wife -- newly pregnant with me. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it certainly proved to be a landmark weekend for us all.

For Nixon, it was the beginning of the end of his presidency, leading to a disgraced exit from office and a tarnished image in history books. Even at his death in 1994, the opening line of The Sun's obituary recalled "the endless controversy over him."

For my father and me, Watergate became the crux of a constant, passionate debate. My father recalls the incident and ensuing scandal as the point at which a relatively objective press spiraled hopelessly downward to become a gang of liberals looking to lynch conservatives. I, on the other hand, have come to see the Watergate affair as the tyrannical turn of a paranoid leader who needed to be checked by a strong, disinterested press.

We've spent countless breakfasts and dinners debating every facet of it: motives, personalities, agendas. When I was in college, we managed to fit in fights during school breaks and campus visits. After I graduated (from a school, incidentally, he considered much too liberal), I moved back home and got a job -- as a reporter. My father, recently retired from a career in public relations, was home too, so we had more time than ever to joust.

Then last year I moved south to Baltimore. Our fiery debate proved difficult to maintain on the telephone (especially when one of us refused to acknowledge his need for a hearing aid). So I started looking for an excuse to invite him down. That's when I hit on the perfect field trip: a visit to the tapes.

The tapes. The tapes that proved Nixon and his top aides engineered a cover-up of White House involvement in Watergate. The tapes the National Archives finally released to the public in November after a 21-year battle with the Nixon estate. The tapes my father has always said Nixon should have burned.

It seemed like the perfect father-daughter outing.

At least for this father and daughter -- a 67-year-old conservative who was a Phil Graham Republican last year and thinks Nixon's profile belongs on Mount Rushmore, and a 24-year-old liberal who hoped Ralph Nader would somehow pull an upset last November and thinks Woodward and Bernstein deserve a monument.

Some kids have baseball. I have political discord. When I really talk to my dad, it's through politics. So even a verge-of-a-heart-attack fight over "family values" has been -- after a three-week brooding period -- a bonding experience for my dad and me.

It wasn't always this way. There was a time I worshiped my father's politics. We'd sit in front of the "Morton Downey Jr." show laughing as the host clobbered "flaming liberals." I'd cheer during the last words of Ronald Reagan's State of the Union addresses as my father kissed the television screen. But sometime between braces and the prom, things began to change.

A high-school history teacher assigned a report on the Alger Hiss spy case, and I suddenly saw Nixon, my father's Watergate victim, in a whole new light. It unleashed a chain reaction. I started thinking more for myself and started to disagree.

So for the last decade or so, we've argued. Over the Iran-contra dealings. Over the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Over affirmative action and welfare. And when we grew tired of those, there was always Richard Nixon to kick around.

Now, with our chances to argue increasingly scarce, who better than the man himself to ignite things again? We made a date to listen to the tapes.

The tapes, at the new National Archives center in College Park, are recordings of 201 hours of conversation that focus exclusively on the Watergate happenings between 1971 and 1973. The short, sometimes unintelligible conversations were recorded from several devices Nixon had installed in the Oval Office, his private office, the Cabinet Room and on his own

telephone.

Long after he left office, Nixon wrote that he installed the microphones for posterity, so that his administration would be the best-recorded in history. It was a fateful decision. Today, visitors to the archives are introduced to these recordings as the "Abuse of Government Power" tapes.

The recordings are available to anyone and can be heard Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 3: 30 p.m. But archivist Linda Fisher says they have generated much more interest in the press than among the general public.

As a result, there have been newspaper stories about Nixon's anti-Semitic comments; about his suggestions to break into the liberal think tank Brookings Institute and send immigration agents to raid the Los Angeles Times; about his previously unreported offer to leave office in 1973.

My longtime sparring partner quickly belittled such headlines when I invited him down: "Journalists have been trying to find any new scandal, anything that'll make the liberals dance with glee."

It was just like the good old days, when my father would claim my mind had been poisoned by liberal academia, and I'd call him and his golfing buddies "fossils."

This trip was shaping up nicely.

Always, even with slammed doors and strained vocal cords, my father and I kept our Nixon brawls mostly good-natured, lighthearted. I figure it has something to do with distance. As strongly as I feel about it, for me, Watergate is history. I was barely a toddler when Nixon resigned. So, unlike people a generation or more older, I didn't live through it. I don't feel the same sort of visceral anger many Nixon foes do.

"Richard Nixon is not someone I can think of as a historical figure," David Harris says when I ask him about my theory. "It's hard for me to detach ... he was the most evil man that ever held the presidency of the United States."

Harris is the Vietnam War protester who spent two years in prison for resisting the draft and has written several books about the Vietnam/Watergate period. He seethes at the suggestion that Nixon should be remembered as an otherwise good leader who erred once.

But he fears that is what's happening, "judging by the way [Nixon's] funeral was handled," he says. "Oh, when I saw that everybody was calling him a statesman, I just wanted to puke."

No lightheartedness there.

But Monica Crowley, 28, Nixon's research aide during the last four years of his life and author of last year's "Nixon off the Record: His Candid Commentary on People and Politics," understands my detachment. Crowley says that unlike our elders, "We come to it with a clean slate. We weren't immersed in the hysteria of the period. What we know of Nixon is the [more] immediate history."

Crowley believes that future generations, too, will have a more favorable view of Nixon, because they won't be exposed to "the journalists and political commentators who have a stake in perpetuating the negative. They brought him down, so they have to constantly prove they were right."

This theory irks Paul Taylor, the former Washington Post political correspondent who now leads a group to reform media coverage of political campaigns. He argues that the journalists who exposed Watergate did not "bring Nixon down." The president managed that himself, he says.

"The judgment of history will be that Nixon had a lot of power and was corrupted by that power and was eventually driven out of office because of it," he says.

Taylor is among those who believe that political coverage today is too negative, too "reflexively skeptical." But he maintains that the press was fair during the Watergate period. "The deceitful nature of the scandals was such that it created a more aggressive news coverage," he says. "I think that was justified."

I could say my father and I were seeking a mutual understanding by going to hear the tapes together. But we weren't. On the ride down we'd sparred as usual, so when we pulled up to the mass of brick and glass in College Park called the National Archives, our positions were as polar as ever.

After a series of formalities, including an electronic questionnaire and security checks, we reached our destination: a small, glass-enclosed chamber of listening stations called the restricted media room. Except for a former court clerk who was transcribing the tapes for his firm, the room was empty.

An archivist from the Nixon Project, Dimitri Reavis, greeted us, and let us know that even if we had arrived seeking enlightenment, it would likely be a fruitless endeavor.

"People seem to be already decided once they get here," he said. "They come to listen with different ears, so what they hear tends to confirm what they already thought. People who love Nixon leave loving him; people who hate Nixon leave hating him."

Great, I thought: That's why we're here. We dove into binders bulging with pages noting the date, time, persons involved and length of each recording. My father chose a tape from the relatively calm days of July 1972. I chose a more panicked time, May of 1973. We put on the big, old-fashioned headphones and settled in.

My father heard his hero in conversations with John D. Erlichman, Nixon's domestic policy adviser, who later resigned and eventually was sentenced to 18 months in prison for conspiracy and perjury. They talked of their knowledge of the break-in, of various cover-up strategies. He found himself startled by their bluntness: Both clearly knew about the break-in and were searching for a scapegoat.

I heard the president probing his lieutenants for reassurance. In a May 25, 1973, conversation with his newly installed chief of staff, Alexander Haig, I think I may have heard Nixon cry. His

breathing was choppy as he said, "I'm not at my best," and suggested he might leave office. What I heard was less ruthless, less infuriating than I'd imagined. It was sad.

We listened a little longer, then broke for lunch. Over plastic-foam trays of soup and sandwiches at the Archives Cafe, we found something unexpected: common ground.

The voices brought it all back for him, my father said. He remembered the turmoil of the time, remembered his disappointment in the president. I heard an unexpected fragility in Nixon's voice. I heard a human being.

For an hour at lunch, the debating stopped, and we talked. About what might have been if Nixon had come clean early on, if the press had handled the case differently, if Nixon had, in fact, burned the tapes. It was a rare realm for my father and me. We had spent so much time fuming over these same subjects, it was refreshing to lay down our weapons and listen to each other.

But it was a short-lived truce.

As we walked back toward the listening room, my father leaned close to me and spoke in a low tone that meant he was about to utter something subversive.

"You want to know what I really think?" he asked. "We'd be better off as a country if Richard Nixon had finished his term. The resignation weakened the country. Congress gave up on Vietnam. It weakened the country's resolve to keep our commitments. I'm not saying he was justified. But if the tapes never existed, the Cold War might have come to end much more quickly."

I tried to remain thoughtful, to hold onto our lunchtime understanding. But he continued.

The liberal press, he said, was reckless in its single-minded intention to crucify the staunch conservative who held the presidency. And because of their collective obsession, the nation suffered.

The time for thoughtful discussion had passed. This deserved a counterattack.

The country would have been better off with a president who disregarded democracy? I argued. A president who broke the law and repeatedly lied should have continued to lead our Vietnam effort -- a war marked by the lies our military had spread? The press, not Nixon and his ilk, were responsible for the Vietnam debacle and president's demise?

As quickly as we'd let them down, our guards were back up. And all in all, I was relieved. Lunch had been nice, but it felt good to be back on familiar turf.

Returning to the tapes, my ears had hardened. No plaintive Nixon whispers were going to throw me this time. My foe, however, was missing in action.

Dad had decided to forsake the grim Watergate tapes for something more entertaining: a newsreel of the 1949 West Point-Fordham football game.

He had attended the game, having been weaned on the West Point-Fordham rivalry, with his father a Ram and his uncle (and later, another daughter) a Black Knight. One of his golf buddies had been the 1949 Fordham team captain. All this, he explained as we left, made the 35-0 Army victory far more interesting than rehashing Watergate.

It made me a little sad. His escape into the newsreel had cut short our listening together, but even more, it made me wonder: Was my father still as dedicated to debating Nixon as I was?

It took a little while to learn the answer. About a month after our trip, Dad admitted that watching the old football game had just been easier than "listening to my hero go down in flames."

So he hadn't stopped fighting, just staged a tactical retreat. It was good to know I had won the battle, but it was even better knowing our Nixon war rages on.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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