OVER the many years I covered Richard Nixon as a newsman I would so often hear a question that has never gone away: ``What was Nixon really like?''
Even after the eulogies and the countless articles about his life, he remains a mystery. I submit that the search for the real Nixon will go on and on. I wouldn't be surprised if an author 1,000 years from now used the Nixon saga for his plot. Would it be ``Richard the Misunderstood''? Or ``Richard the Bad''? Or ``The Richard Who Never Gave Up''?
A newsman must leave the final verdict on Nixon and his presidency to the historians. But I can say that in the many interviews I had with him, starting when he was Eisenhower's vice president, he was unfailingly courteous and friendly.
He also was guarded. He would think through each question before answering. It was clear to me that he wanted to make sure that he looked well-informed and thoughtful. But there was something else: You sensed his distrust of the press. You felt that he thought that if he made the slightest slip, the reporter would play it up and he would be damaged.
My last interview with Nixon occurred in the fall of 1978 at his San Clemente compound, when he was just beginning to talk to the press after being forced out of office by Watergate. In granting this exceedingly rare visit with a newsman, he said he wanted it for ``background'' only. He said he didn't want to stir up ripples. He would provide ``analysis.'' He was to be in a sense the columnist; the reporter was to be the listener. I could write what he said - but no quotes on matters of substance.
From then on and for the next few hours Nixon spoke, only now and then providing an opening for questions.
He wouldn't talk about Watergate. He said he wanted to stay above the battle.
He said he was disappointed in what he saw as a widespread misinterpretation of the detente with the Soviets. He said it was not a peace pact or a peace arrangement or a conciliatory move by the US. He said it was simply an agreement by each nation to hold back on reacting too quickly and aggressively to actions taken by the other nation to fulfill national interest.
When I was able to break in here to ask for clarification, Nixon would give none. He moved on to another subject. He said that private diplomacy is the only way to get results in negotiations with other nations. Here he said he was convinced that the large increase in the number of Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union during his administration was attributable to quiet diplomacy.
He got into the subject of politics. He spoke highly of Barry Goldwater whose scathing comments on Watergate had done much to bring down his presidency. He compared Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, who was to be president within two years, saying that Goldwater had depth but Reagan was just on the surface.
There was much more in that Nixon monologue at the moment when he was just beginning to fight back after his disgrace. Even then public opinion was softening a bit on Nixon. An Associated Press-NBC poll at the time showed that more than one-third of the public thought highly of him.
How far did Nixon make it back? His abuse of power and his dishonorable exit from the presidency will always be on his record. But President Clinton seemed to express a growing view among Americans when he said Nixon should be judged on the ``totality'' of his public record, particularly in foreign affairs.