Nixon redivivus

BEFORE Richard Nixon became President, he wrote a book called ``Six Crises,'' in which he cited incidents in which he had been under great stress and how he dealt with them. These ``crises'' related to his involvement in the Alger Hiss case; his dealing with charges that as a senator he had a supplementary salary of $20,000, contributed by some California businessmen; his response, when vice-president, to President Eisenhower's heart attack; his confrontation with a mob in Caracas; his meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in 1959; and his campaign for the presidency in 1960.

All these ``crises'' pale, of course, before Watergate. And the overwhelming evidence is that he utterly failed that test of poise and character.

His book was meant to convince the reader that since he, Nixon, had been through the fire again and again, and had (as he saw it) always prevailed, he was just the one to take over the reins of the United States. And even though Mr. Nixon's experience didn't save him from failure and disgrace in Watergate, the book is instructive for seeing how he is engineering what even his severest critics are calling a comeback.

Obviously, Nixon has decided, after wrestling with severe illness and deep depression, not to fade out but to fight back in a creative way. This has meant writing books and granting interviews, and, most recently, making some speeches. And little by little the dishonored President has been improving his image.

The taint remains; it will always be there. But Nixon's foreign policy achievements -- the opening to China and d'etente with the Soviets -- are coming into public focus, dimming the memory of scandal.

And now even Newsweek magazine runs a cover picture of the former President, proclaiming in big type, ``He's Back.'' Who would have thought this would ever happen, from a publication under the same ownership as the Washington Post, the paper that did so much to bring Watergate out in the open and send Nixon back to private life?

Writing of his earlier ``crises,'' Nixon at one point observed: ``Crisis can indeed be agony. But it is the exquisite agony which a man might not want to experience again yet would not for the world have missed.'' He even wrote about crisis as though it were a ``mountaintop experience,'' holding great promise for the one involved if he seized his opportunity.

Obviously this younger Nixon didn't realize that he would later meet up with a crisis darker than he had ever known, one which, from his own words, he desperately wished he had missed. As Newsweek reminds us in detail, the scandals that began with a bungled burglary grew to enmesh Nixon and his top aides in a cover-up, perjury, destruction of evidence, hush money, bugging, tax evasion, campaign-financing abuses, and political dirty tricks. Indeed, without President Gerald Ford's pardon, Nixon might well have gone to jail.

Remember how upset most Americans were when President Ford issued the pardon so that, as he viewed it, he could get Watergate behind him and move on to other, more pressing priorities in running the country? Mr. Ford himself believes this move was one from which he never recovered politically and which kept him from reelection in 1976. Now, according to a Newsweek poll, 54 percent of the public thinks Ford was right in pardoning Nixon -- up from 46 percent in 1982 and 35 percent in 1976. Also, the poll shows that 39 percent of Americans now would like to see Nixon back in public life, perhaps as an adviser or ambassador.

President Reagan now consults with Nixon on a regular basis, leaning on the ex-President's views on foreign affairs, particularly on how to deal with the Soviets. A few years back any political figure who got close to Nixon in a public place risked getting hurt in the eyes of the voters. But now it has become respectable, not only to associate with Nixon, but also to ask his advice.

Total rehabilitation for Nixon will probably never come, certainly not in the eyes of his severest critics. But he has made astonishing progress toward a comeback.

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

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