Washington — Richard Nixon somehow is able to hang on. Most Americans, it seems, would like to forget him. But he keeps popping up. Now he's in the headlines again as the center of a controversy at his old university, Duke, where, incidentally, he was an outstanding law student.
Against the wishes of many faculty members, that university's board of trustees has voted to support the effort of its president, Terry Sanford, to set up a repository at Duke for Nixon's presidential papers.
But will Nixon be willing to accept what Mr. Sanford has promised the unhappy faculty members -- "primarily a research facility" -- or will he in upcoming negotiations insist that the building be what libraries have been to other ex-presidents, a memorial?
Duke University acknowledges that the road to building the Nixon facility is far from cleared.It realizes it must walk very carefully lest it let Nixon use the library or museum as a means of helping him in his effort toward public rehabilitation.
Thus, more controversy and more Nixon headlines seem to be a strong possibility during the upcoming negotiations.
But what the hotly contested debate over the library illustrates above everything else, it seems, is this: the disclosures of Watergate and the resignation from the presidency were not enough to push Nixon into obscurity.
Of course, Nixon is not a part of the central political stage. But his presence seems to be always felt. Even when he isn't making some news -- by a trip abroad, the settling of some suit, a move to New York, or a comment on the issues of the day -- Nixon always seems to be around, a brooding figure whose supporters are very few today but whose name and face are still well known. In fact one commentator asserted recently that Nixon probably still was one of the best known leaders, or ex-leaders, in the world.
Reporters who have talked to Nixon recently find him in good health and still hopeful of finding, in his lifetime, a return to some measure of public respect. He is confident that history will be more approving of him than his contemporaries. He is convinced that his foreign affairs performance -- putting together detente and SALT I, opening up relations with China, and bringing about an end to the vietnam war -- will in time gain him high marks that will offset the disaster of Watergate.
At this point, however, there appears to be no evidence that such a revisionist view of Nixon is beginning to take place, despite his own efforts, in interviews and in his writings, to emphasize his achievements and put Watergate behind him.
Nixon, of course, never quite deals with Watergate the way much of th ep deals with Watergate the way much of the public desires. He has tried to show how he agonized over it. He has said he made a terrible mistake. But he has never said he committed a crime, disgraced the presidency, and would like to apologize to the American people.Such expressions of remorse might have brought about a public forgiveness.
Americans are a forgiving people. They applaud those who honestly admit their wrongs and then make a comeback, as Charles Colson is doing. Colson now spends much of his life endeavoring to help people in prison. Many observers indeed believe that his claim of having had a Christian rebirth is a genuine one.
Others around Nixon, like Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Krogh, have paid their dues in prison and also are rebuilding their lives.
Some people will always feel that Nixon should not have been pardoned -- that he could only have earned a ticket back to respectability by answering for his misconduct in the courts. But keen public awareness of Nixon remains. He's always there, diminished but still a part of the political scene.
Veteran Washington political reporters have come to believe that they will be writing about Nixon all their working lives. Nixon running against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Nixon and Alger Hiss. The Nixon fund. Nixon's debate with Kennedy.Nixon's "goodbye" to reporters after his loss in the California governor's race. The "new" Nixon elected president. Nixon's trip to China. Watergate. Resignation.
A Time magazine columnist said on TV the other night, commenting on the current Duke episode: "I feel that I've always been covering Nixon."
Nixon simply won't go away.