Nixon in China, Bush in Mideast - the parallels

The president now has said that he will make an all-out effort to bring about a peace settlement in the Middle East, with a Palestinian state situated side by side with Israel.

It seems to me that the president has a chance - certainly one worth pursuing - to help glue together a peace settlement of historic proportions. He would have Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan - unilateral withdrawal of settlements in Gaza along with relocation of four settlements in the northern part of the West Bank to obtain an end of hostilities from the Palestinians - as a good starting place for talks. Furthermore, the Palestinian leader who apparently is the current favorite to succeed Arafat in the early January presidential election, Mahmoud Abbas, has expressed his eagerness for a discussion of this plan with the Israelis.

President Bush will have strong support at home if he moves into this peaceeffort. His unbending backing of Israel will keep even his avidly pro-Israel right-wing base behind him when he backs Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposed land concessions to the Palestinians. These conservatives will trust that Mr. Bush will be acting in their best interests.

I'm reminded of when President Nixon traveled to China and normalized relations with that communist country - a great coup for him. Nixon's strong anticommunist base trusted its committed and well-known anticommunist president to take a step that it would have denounced if made by Presidents Kennedy or Johnson.

I've been thinking a lot about Nixon - in connection with Bush's run for reelection. During the Nixon years as vice president and then president, it was easy to see why he had so many fierce opponents: He practiced a personal kind of politics that often got him angry at those who stood in the way of what he wanted to do. They became his hated enemies. This ugly approach to relationships was unveiled after Watergate, when Nixon's enemies list came to light. So it was that along with his to-the-bitter-end loyalists, Nixon also had many among the electorate who reacted to his style with their own hatred.

But, I kept asking myself during the recent campaign, why all this dislike - even hatred - of George W. Bush? Bush is a likable fellow. Even the polls suggested that he was far more likable among Americans than his opponent Sen. John Kerry.

Bush joshed with the members of the White House press - most of whom, another poll showed, voted against him. He treats his wife and all family members with kindness. He is good to his dog. What is it about Bush that riled so many people? The only answer I've heard is that to many people, Bush always seems too confident, "too cocky." Well, you don't have to like a "cocky" president - but is this enough to cause this much animosity to be spewed against him?

Actually, I heard some nice words about Nixon during the campaign.

One TV commentator spoke about how "gentlemanly" Nixon had been in the 1960 presidential election, when Kennedy's win was razor thin. He pointed out - and I remember it well because I was reporting out of Chicago for the Monitor at that time - that there was evidence of a lot of cheating at the polls in Cook County (Chicago), where it seemed possible, if not likely, that a recount would turn the election around.

I recall that several of Nixon's top aides urged him to contest the election. But Nixon stubbornly resisted this advice, taking the position that a vote challenge of this kind would harm the country by putting it through a period of confusion.

Of course, Senator Kerry didn't contest the outcome either. As he bowed out, Kerry said he had looked carefully at the Ohio votes that had yet to be counted, and had determined there were not enough for him to win. Only then, he said, did he decide to concede the race (and now his campaign has joined two smaller parties seeking a recount in Ohio).

Nixon's obstruction of justice and his weakening of the presidency as an institution remain an indelible blot on his record. But when one thinks about Nixon's foreign policy accomplishments - détente with the Soviet Union as well as opening up mainland China - we see a president who could have been a notable success.

And now, will Bush make ripples in the Middle East, just as Nixon did in the Far East back in 1971? We'll see.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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