Richard Nixon, the old stager, is still going strong. Richard Nixon Reflects, a 90-minute interview with the former President taped last year for the PBS series American Interests, is a fascinating entry in the Nixon comeback saga.
At age 77, Nixon comes off as forceful, articulate, assured, and endlessly self-justifying, a satisfied half-smile playing from time to time over his lips. And his advice — reminding Democrats, for example, that they are at their best when they are for the underdogs and the underclass — is often to the point.
Traces of the old Nixon remain: palpable tension between a repeatedly professed ability to ”understand” why people dislike him and the underlying sense he conveys of himself as the victim of unfair liberal persecution. Yet his capacity for the sly crack has not diminished: Eisenhower, he says, was ”a pretty good picker [of people] — at least he always considered himself to be.” In discussing Kennedy and Vietnam, he notes, ”I never would have joined in the conspiracy to assassinate Diem.” (There never was such a conspiracy; Kennedy had arranged for a plane to fly Diem to safety.) As always, too, he is cutting and contemptuous of the press, television, and the federal bureaucracy.
The interviewer, Morton Kondracke, a senior editor at The New Republic and commentator on TV’s The McLaughlin Group, tosses Nixon a number of softballs. ”It has been fairly clearly established,” Kondracke asks in one of his more sycophantic moments, ”that anything that your administration did during Watergate had been done by the Johnson administration and by the Kennedy administration.” No such thing has been established; but no matter. Nixon responds that the cover-up was the mistake, that the President’s responsibility is to enforce the law, ”and I did not effectively do that.”
Then Kondracke reminds Nixon of his remark to David Frost, ”When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal,” and asks if he really believes that. ”No question,” Nixon answers, justifying the comment by telling us that Lincoln said, ”Some actions which under normal circumstances would be illegal become legal if the President orders them because of the security of the country.” Lincoln never said any such thing. In any case, Lincoln was President in the midst of the gravest crisis in the history of the republic, which was hardly Nixon’s situation.
Despite verbal concessions, Nixon remains determined to rewrite history. One watches Richard Nixon Reflects with a sort of morbid fascination, wondering what the old fellow with his queasy smile will think up next. It is an interview that friends and foes alike will find absorbing. B