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The Nixon amnesia.

Call me a heartless bitch, but I found the media eulogies of Richard Nixon revolting. The fulsome praise lavished on this lifelong, red-baiting paranoiac was bad enough, but the two things that were truly infuriating were the incredible simplifications of his legacy and the wholesale rewriting of American and world history. Most commentators divided his biography into two chapters: Watergate (bad) and foreign affairs (good).

Through this particular bifurcation, Watergate could become the main - and only - site of his sins, while his foreign policy then could be placed atop some untouchable, sacred altar. The kind of amnesia this permits about the foreign policy of the past contributes to confusions and misrepresentations about foreign affairs today. It perpetuates the myth of American innocence and goodness when dealing with other countries, when the facts, if they ever get reported, paint a different picture.

Since every news division felt it had to feature Henry Kissinger, we got to hear him self-servingly elevate Nixon (and thus himself) to near-genius stature for his "conceptual" approach to China and the former Soviet Union. The New York Times really tugged at my heartstrings when it repeated Kissinger's bathetic assessment that Nixon "would have been a great, great man had somebody loved him."

William Safire quipped that "if Churchill was the man of the first half of the Twentieth Century, then Nixon was the man of the second half." The words "statesman" and "vision" were used repeatedly by all sorts of commentators. Time touted its issue with the Nixon book excerpts as if they were some newly discovered stone tablets from the mount (The Last Testament of Richard Nixon). On top of this, Nixon was cast by pundits from George Will to Nina Totenberg as the most liberal President we've had since World War II, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson.

On This Week with David Brinkley, the two guests brought in to comment about Nixon were Kissinger and Howard Baker. Baker described Watergate as "a great waste" because "we lost a successful and potentially very great President."

I wonder how some other guests - oh, say, the descendants of Helen Gahagan Douglas, or Salvador Allende, or any of the thousands of antiwar, feminist, or civil-rights activists who were spied on, lied about, and harassed during the Nixon years - might have responded to this assertion.

Many of us remember a different Nixon, and he was no liberal and no statesman. Sam Donaldson was one of the few pundits to resist the hypocrisy of the kid-gloves approach. He reminded viewers that Nixon "stooped to the kind of low dirty tricks to gain his objectives in life that I think are impermissible."

Let's recall some of these, since it's clear the mainstream media won't. Nixon presided over a CIA and FBI totally out of control. This was the President who, along with the help of these august organizations, launched the secret bombing of Cambodia, had Allende murdered and replaced with the thug Pinochet, trained and supplied SAVAK, the Iranian secret police whose specialty was torturing dissidents, secretly provided arms to Ferdinand Marcos, Anastasio Somoza, and the Vorster regime in South Africa, and sought to suppress the African National Congress.

On the home front, while we got, under Nixon, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and subsidized housing for the poor, we also got an ideological war against feminists, African-Americans, and the Left, culminating in the FBI's now-infamous COINTELPRO, which brought wiretaps, surveillance, character assassination, and arrests to all corners of America. During the 1992 campaign, Nixon urged Bill Clinton to keep Hillary under wraps because a strong and intelligent wife "makes the husband look like a wimp."

It is considered tasteless to mention such things right after someone has died, especially if that someone had his tarnished reputation rehabilitated with considerable help from the press. As Safire insisted (and not without his own reputation in mind), "He earned his way back."

What exactly, did Nixon do to merit the mantle of "elder statesman" that he wore in recent years? He wrote some books attacking Jimmy Carter for letting the country become "mushy" and urged a return to our kick-butt policies of yore. (It was Carter who sought to reverse Nixon's lethal and cynical practice of supporting fascistic regimes with appalling human-rights records just because they were "anticommunist.") Thank God for Russell Baker, who accused the press of a "group conspiracy to grant [Nixon] absolution."

But it is, in fact, Jimmy Carter whose deportment as a former President puts Nixon - and most other former Presidents - to shame. Whether he's denouncing Clinton's policy toward Haiti as racist, or seeking to negotiate between Somalia and the United States, or fighting racism and poverty in the United States, Carter shows us what a statesman with vision can do. But he doesn't have the same neo-con friends in the highest ranks of the news media, so we don't hear too much about him. No doubt his media obituaries will be dominated by endless footage of the hostage crisis, while the "October Surprise" will never be mentioned.

But the worst part is seeing Nixon elevated to role model for reviled politicians. Dan Quayle, apparently taking heart from Nixon's endless media-assisted resurrections, is beating a path on the comeback trail.

Go ahead and laugh. Who would have thought, in 1952, after watching the "Checkers Speech," that its author would one day be hailed as a demi-god?
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Title Annotation:Pundit Watch; Richard M. Nixon
Author:Douglas, Susan
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Previous Article:Pride and prejudice.
Next Article:Looking back at 'Brown.' (school desegregation)(Class Notes) (Column)

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