HISTORY will be as harsh and kind to Richard Nixon as were his times. That he helped to engineer his own exit from the White House cannot be refuted. The Watergate hearings that explored the coverup revealed a temper-ament that radiated truculence, isolation, suspicion, and a vivid sense of ``enemy'' throughout his White House. Nixon's analytical focus, which had made him so astute a tactician in domestic politics and foreign policy had a dark side in the tenacity with which he pursued success. The brooding, cornered Nixon was counterpoint to the jubilant, effusive Nixon of a dozen major domestic and foreign-policy triumphs - the 1968 election comeback, the openings to China. The energy of Nixon's character already has led to the staging of one successful opera in his lifetime and will inspire Shakespeares of the future.
Nixon's imperfect responses to the Watergate events showed where he was vulnerable; they did not constitute the full load of negativity at play.
There is much talk of a lack of civility in political life in the 1990s. But it is nothing compared to the tensions of the 1960s when Nixon came to power. Civil rights legislation, urban riots, a do-your-own-thing/anti-authoritarian cultural shift, the Vietnam War, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago with Mayor Daley uttering obscenities inside the hall and his police beating on demonstrators outside the hall - those were uncivil times. Regionally, there was a resentment of things Californian; the conservative coalition still yoked Southern Democrats and Republicans together to block progress. Anti-Communism was a passion: anger toward a demonized, atheistic, and monolithic Communist menace.
As America moved into the '70s, the Vietnam War had to be ended, and with it the illusion of US military omnipotence. The oil shocks were coming. The inflationary impact of the war had to play out. Domestically, the 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion would attempt to manage the political and personal pressures of whose rights and what practices should be at play.
The decline in confidence in American and world leadership is generally traced to the mid-1960s, before Richard Nixon was elected, and largely for the reasons listed above - among which the 1972 Watergate break-in was a blip.
Strong leaders like Nixon give figure and voice to the projections of followers and antagonists. Love 'em or hate 'em.
But something else happened during the Watergate process that must be regarded as positive: The American public reaffirmed that their political system was based on the superiority of impersonal values over personal power.
The ``imperial'' presidency attributed to Nixon (a man of the humblest personal origins, with the psychological overtones that this suggests) became a target of the hearings. The balance of powers of the system steadily prevailed against a cornered chief executive. Institutions like the press felt self-important. But it was a system of values - justice and due process - that prevailed.
Tragedy may come when a leader fails to recognize that the arc of his service is in decline. The trajectory of Nixon's accomplishments put him in a small cluster of remarkable American leaders. His shortcomings kept his service from ending in grace.