Rehabilitation: Clinton and Nixon

At a moment when President Clinton is making special efforts to rehabilitate himself, he has been hit hard with criticism of the way he has governed from a scholar he has long admired: Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian James MacGregor Burns.

It was Dr. Burns's biography of John F. Kennedy that did so much to win respect among academics for that then-rising political star. In his new book - "Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation" - co-authored by political scientist Georgia Sorenson, the verdict on Mr. Clinton is tough: Clinton's centrist strategy initiated a pattern of indecisive leadership that will adversely affect American politics for decades to come.

Burns told us at breakfast the other morning that he and Ms. Sorenson had met with Clinton back in 1992 and heard him express aspirations of becoming a "transformational leader" like Franklin D. Roosevelt. But they saw Clinton, doubtless discouraged by his inability to push through his radical health-care plan, becoming a centrist - a "transactional president" who has failed to come up to his potential. Yes, this book must come as quite a blow to a president who is so much concerned these days with how history will perceive him.

Clinton has been concentrating particularly on putting a more favorable slant on his personal behavior. Of the Lewinsky episode he told an interviewer: "I think history will view this much differently." He said that historians would understand that there really was a right-wing effort to get him.

Well, as a newsman who had a front-row seat at Richard Nixon's effort to rehabilitate himself, I can only say: History, in my opinion, is going to be reluctant to excuse a president who corrupted evidence in a federal proceeding and was found in contempt by a judge for providing testimony that was "false, misleading and for evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the political process." Yes, I sat with Nixon for much of a morning in the fall of 1977 at his San Clemente compound, where he was just beginning to talk to the press after being forced out of office by Watergate. He had given a "first" interview to Britain's David Frost. Then he talked to Time's Hugh Sidey. I got my opportunity next.

I had had many interviews with Nixon over the years. He was always guarded, a bit stiff - you sensed his mistrust of the press. But this time he seemed to be going out of his way to be friendly, showing me around the house while he pointed out objects of interest.

But it soon became clear how Nixon would try to rehabilitate himself. He wasn't going to rewrite Watergate; instead he was going to devote the rest of his life to trying to demonstrate that, despite Watergate, his presidency had been a notable one. So he sat with me for at least two hours, talking about world affairs and how in that arena his administration had - as he saw it - made an important difference. He talked about detente with the Soviets and how it was achieved. He went into details on why he decided to move to open mainland China. He pointed at a world map as he designated areas and nations where he had been active as president. But he wouldn't talk of Watergate. Indeed, this was the beginning of Nixon's long effort to present himself as a statesman. This was his answer to Watergate. So as years have gone by he may have improved his image. But Watergate still stands there in the background, and the verdict of historians is that because of it he remains a failed president.

A postscript if I may: By the time I'd transcribed the Nixon tape it was late afternoon. I called the Monitor's editor at his home at about 9 p.m. (his time), and after listening to the transcript, he talked with me until near midnight about the interview. He was so interested; he wanted to hear about the setting, how Nixon looked, how he comported himself, every detail. It was so wonderful to have a very busy top editor who would give such enthusiastic support to a reporter. But that was not unusual for our much-loved Earl Foell, who passed on recently.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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