BOSTON — Early in the 1960s - when Richard Nixon was practicing law in New York after his defeat by John F. Kennedy - I asked him in an interview why there were so many people who were hostile to him. His answer, and one that he later elaborated on in his book "Six Crises," was this: "Because I got Alger Hiss. They'll never forgive me because I got Hiss."
He was referring to his persistence, when he was a young congressman, in spearheading the probe into whether that former State Department official had passed secret documents to the communists. Hiss served a prison sentence for perjury but never admitted to any involvement with the communists.
Nixon admitted that the Hiss case gave him the notoriety which led to President Eisenhower picking him for his vice president. But he said, bitterly, that he felt the hostility stirred up by his pursuit of Hiss may well have deprived him of the presidency in 1960.
Eight years later, of course, Nixon made it to the White House. But the strong, angry feeling against him remained among millions of Americans - particularly liberal Democrats - who believed that Hiss was innocent and that Nixon in pursuing Hiss had simply been on a crusade to make the voters believe that liberalism was closely allied with communism and the Communist Party.
Well, that was long ago. But I have been reminded of this by the recurrent talk in Washington of the hostility against President Clinton - particularly of the antagonism against Mr. Clinton among Republicans in the House and Senate.
But what I hear from Republican officials who have visited the Monitor's breakfast group in recent months, including the GOP party chairman, is something that comes through to me as more frustration than anything else. They simply are very unhappy that Clinton was not removed from office. And they are extremely upset over the ability of this president to somehow put his disgrace aside and function to the satisfaction of so many Americans.
As a political newsman I traveled all around the US back in the Nixon years. And wherever I went I found that just to ask the question, "What do you think of Richard Nixon?" would often evoke a passionate expression of displeasure with the Californian. There was no other word for it: It was hatred. And it was widespread.
I don't think that Republicans today - certainly not the ones I've talked to or listened to on TV - really hate this president. They are appalled at his conduct and think it disqualified him from carrying on as our nation's leader. But they see Bill Clinton as an object of ridicule - not of hatred.
Republicans in Congress are particularly distressed these days that this once-discredited president has made enough of a comeback to be able to put up a good fight for his legislative agenda - particularly his budget-tax proposals. They are bent on blocking him and prevailing with their own initiatives. But - again - they don't hate him.
There was one other president during my years of watching the political scene who stirred up a lot of deep hostility - even hatred. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who is remembered for being much loved. But while a lot, and doubtless the majority, of Americans believed their lives were improved by the FDR reforms, there were millions who felt they were not helped and were convinced that Roosevelt was leading the country toward socialism and disaster.
I heard this love-hate battle being fought, verbally, again and again on the sidewalks of my hometown as neighbors yelled at neighbors.
Roosevelt is rightly being given a high place among our nation's presidents by historians.
But it should not be forgotten: He presided over what some have called a peaceful revolution and his actions evoked both passionate affection and heated dislike.
His support is not of the truly passionate variety. And neither is his opposition. He's certainly not hated like a Nixon.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society