Nixon: Rehabilitated Or Just Repackaged?

THE man whom former President Richard M. Nixon once reportedly called a ``Romanian agent'' and subjected to harassment by the Internal Revenue Service, has - for now at least - gotten the last word on his tormenter. In ``The Nixon Memo: Political Respect-ability, Russia, and the Press,'' longtime newsman Marvin Kalb has penned a gripping case study of the Machiavellian penchant of the 37th president.

Kalb's focus is a searing ``memo'' that Nixon wrote in March 1992 calling for stepped-up United States financial and diplomatic support for Russia. Nixon leaked the memo to a select group of top foreign-policy experts. He also sent it to magazine and newspaper reporters. Entitled ``How to Lose the Cold War,'' the memo faulted the then-current administration of fellow Republican George Bush.

This is a modest-sized book by today's standards, where tomes on political discourse tend to ramble on and on. But Kalb's 200-plus-page study should be required reading for political scientists and journalists. It highlights the clear interplay between politicians and the press - and how newspapers can be made to serve hidden agendas even as they win competitive battles with their own journalistic rivals.

In this case, Kalb argues, the memo had as much to do with Nixon's effort to rehabilitate his standing in American government, following his disgrace in the Watergate scandal, as it did with an effort to change the thrust of US foreign policy.

Kalb shows that Nixon had barely left the White House in 1974 before he began his drive toward rehabilitation; in the early stages, that meant frequent trips abroad, a succession of analytical books, as well as occasional opinion-page articles placed in respected publications. By 1992, Nixon, who had already gone far in regaining public acceptance as an eminence grise of foreign policy, had focused on Russia.

That year he was hosting a conference on foreign policy. He was eager for President Bush to attend, but did not want to invite him directly. That task was left to associates. Nixon also wrote his memo on Russia. In circulating it, he was careful not to leave any indications of privacy - such as stamping on it ``confidential,'' or ``for your eyes only,'' as a Washington insider might do.

Nixon knew the memo would be leaked, Kalb argues. And it was, triggering simultaneous articles - by coincidence, it turned out - in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The Times, unlike the Post, gave the memo special prominence. The upshot was that Nixon found himself back at the forefront of the news, in conflict with the Bush administration, which was arguing that budget restraints made a massive aid program to Russia unlikely.

After the 1992 presidential election, Nixon sought out a meeting with President Clinton on Russia, again injecting himself into the middle of a major foreign policy consideration. Clinton graciously heard out the former president. It turned out to be good practice, since Clinton has now had to deal with other former presidential ``free agents'' - most recently Jimmy Carter, on North Korea and Haiti.

Kalb concludes on a personal note, describing what it was like to be on Nixon's ``enemies'' list. On the whole, his book can hardly be called ``neutral.'' Is he reading too much into Nixon's motives? Nixon's strong suit was, after all, foreign policy. Still, Kalb puts him into perspective by reminding readers that the ``new'' 1990s Nixon may not have been much different from the ``old'' Nixon.

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