Gauging reader gripes

History's lead paragraph about Richard Nixon unvaryingly mentions the Watergate scandal. Will the historians of tomorrow start off with "the scandal-marred administration of William Jefferson Clinton"? Mr. Clinton is certainly working hard to avoid that kind of assessment.

The pairing of Clinton with Nixon - whenever I've done it - doesn't go over at all well with Bill Clinton's host of loyal supporters. Many angry letters from readers attest to that. Yet a recent survey of 58 historians (scholars whose leanings are usually liberal) ranked Clinton's moral authority the lowest among US presidents, just behind Richard Nixon. This survey was carried out by the public affairs TV cable channel C-Span.

Once in a while some old-timer will protest a pairing of Clinton with his or her own favorite of yesterday, Richard Nixon. The argument will go like this: Nixon was not the perpetrator of the Watergate break-in, but Clinton was the perpetrator of the Lewinsky scandal, particularly the lying for which a judge has cited him for contempt and an Arkansas Supreme Court disciplinary committee has recommended he be disbarred.

I'm not going to defend Nixon. His obstruction of justice reached deeply into his administration and severely undercut the credibility of the presidency. Would any president again be trusted? Well, a very honest fellow by the name of Gerry Ford quickly brought back this public trust when he moved into the White House.

As one of very few active journalists today who was writing a political column during the Nixon years I am, again, one of very few columnists who is able to compare reader reaction to both of those presidents during their scandals. Believe it or not: The heat I received from Nixon supporters was even greater than that which I have recently felt from angry Clinton fans.

Many Nixonites saw Watergate as a conspiracy of the liberals to get rid of a president they had been unable to defeat at the polls. Many saw conspiracy, particularly from the press. As I wrote of Nixon's outrageous conduct, I often was called a communist.

How many letters did I receive? There were hundreds. Oh, yes, I got supportive letters, too - but they were far outnumbered by those from Monitor readers, particularly from California and Florida, who not only disagreed with me but also often thought I should be fired.

Indeed, several readers did try to persuade my bosses in Boston to sack me. And at one point, one of Nixon's closest aides met with top people on the Monitor and let them know that the president wasn't happy with the stories the paper was writing about him - and, particularly, mine. So I was told. I also was told that the bosses, right to the very top, weren't moved one inch by the visitor's argument. Instead, they saw it as an unethical power move from the Nixon people. They were not to be pushed around.

I recall, too, how an influential Monitor reader from the Midwest, an ardent Nixon backer and big financial supporter, dropped by my Washington office one day and told me she was on her way to Boston where she was going to see to it that I no longer would be able to write "such awful things" about Mr. Nixon.

Well, she obviously didn't get very far with her project. But, you know, after the tapes were played and Nixon's full involvement in obstructing justice was disclosed, I met that woman again. And she was no longer defending Nixon. Instead, she was quite friendly.

Indeed, the polls showed Nixon's support plummeting immediately after it became clear he was deeply involved in the scandal.

Now as passionate as Clinton supporters are in defending their president, I don't know that any are after my job. But it seems their loyalty to Clinton is stronger than Nixon's fans had for him: The Clinton backers, for the most part, are sticking with him. Look at the polls. He's still way up there.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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