Richard Nixon is back, and this is a good reflection upon him and the nation. When the 37th President left the White House 10 years ago, Aug. 9, 1974, his victory sign looked remarkably inappropriate to most Americans. No more.
Sure, Americans are forgiving people. Yet there is more to the story of his recent elevation to the status of an elder statesman.
Are we being taken for a ride, naively believing again in a new Nixon image, as many critics argue? This is unlikely. The memory of Watergate is too fresh, and the predominantly anti-Nixon news media would not let it die. A more plausible explanation is that the American public has gradually begun to accept that there is more to the former President than his much-discussed dark side.
That there was a dark side is beyond question. One need only read the White House tape transcripts to confirm this. Mr. Nixon frequently sounded overtaken by suspicion and vengeance. He surrounded himself with a second-rate palace guard whose arrogance, belligerence, and inexperience could only reinforce his worse instincts.
But was his suspicion totally unfounded? Hardly. For more than 20 years - probably after his rough campaign against Helen Douglas and certainly after the Alger Hiss affair - Richard Nixon was the liberal establishment's main villain. That he was probably right about Alger Hiss, that he generally avoided wholesale character assassination in the mode of Joe McCarthy, did not help, either. On the contrary, he was viewed as being sneaky and accordingly more dangerous.
When Nixon became President in 1969 he inherited the war in Vietnam launched by his Democratic competitors. But his dilemma of how to disengage 540,000 US troops without capitulation did not get much sympathy from the increasingly angry antiwar coalition.
The liberal establishment did not quite approve such actions. But neither could it bring itself to side with Nixon. Despite the obvious successes of his Vietnamization program, despite intriguing signs of simultaneous openings to Russia and China, despite moderate and generally successful domestic economic and social policies, the President remained to his detractors a tricky Dick, evil and beyond forgiveness.
Still, there is no excuse for Watergate. It was both illegal and stupid. It would have done Nixon an honor and the nation a favor if he had been able to recognize at the time that his opponents were so bitter because they felt helpless, observing the President winning the battle for public opinion hands down. And needless to say, we are entitled to expect a higher standard from the chief executive than from private, even if very influential, citizens.
Nevertheless, Nixon was not only a very impressive President, but also in an important way he was an honorable statesman. While he was not above playing dirty games with individuals, his loyalty to the national interest - as he saw it - was absolute.
In May of 1972, Nixon knew that a trip to Moscow would be extremely beneficial to him on the eve of US elections. Yet, just days before the trip, he was willing to risk the summit by ordering the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. One can dispute Nixon's judgment, but not his courage.
The October 1973 Arab-Israeli war offered a tougher test of Nixon's presidential integrity. When Soviet threats to intervene unilaterally triggered an alert of US forces, there was a widespread suspicion that Nixon was creating an artificial crisis to detract attention from his firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. It would have been to his obvious political advantage to disclose and magnify the extent of the danger. Nixon resisted the temptation. He refused to follow Sen. Henry Jackson's lead in describing the Brezhnev note as ''rough and brutal,'' saying instead that it was ''very firm and left little to the imagination.'' That it was indeed. And Nixon carefully avoided heated rhetoric that would have needlessly alienated the Kremlin.
Widely reputed to be uncomfortable with intellectuals and strong-willed figures, Nixon assembled a unique collection of stars in his Cabinet whose egos matched their brilliance. John Connally, Henry Kissinger, and James Schlesinger were picked and skillfully used by Nixon, even if he was sometimes uncomfortable with Kissinger's propensity for overshadowing the President in the media. Able implementers like Alexander Haig and George Shultz flourished, guided by his leadership; notably, both men failed to live up to their reputations in the confused environment of the Reagan administration.
Gradually, the appeal of Nixon's substantive message - particularly in foreign policy - has overwhelmed the public's reluctance to listen to the fallen President. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter left the office honorably, and neither of them shies away from expressing his opinion. But their arguments just don't have Nixon's combination of insight and punch.
Of late the liberal establishment has been praising many of his foreign policy ideas, but Nixon, the person, remains as despised as ever. The angry reactionaries, posing as conservatives, don't like him, either. For the right-wing ideologues he has always been too unconventional and too pragmatic.
What Nixon deserves from us is perspective and fairness. Perspective and fairness suggest that he has, against considerable odds, earned the right to be treated as a legitimate voice in the US political discourse.