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Richard Nixon: Impressions 12 Years Later

March 09, 1986|BILL STALL | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer.

Forty years after California first sent him to Congress and a dozen years after he fled from the White House, Richard M. Nixon returned in triumph to Los Angeles.

After a 40-minute address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Thursday, the 37th President of the United States sat and smiled as a jammed hotel ballroom stood and applauded. These people were among the most influential in Southern California and he had won their applause once again.

You could just imagine Nixon saying to himself, "That'll show 'em."

Nixon has been around in recent years. He has been interviewed at length on television. He has written six books and has another one coming. We have read about his moving from San Clemente to New York City and then out to New Jersey. We hear occasionally about his travels abroad, most recently a trip last fall to 11 countries--from China to Great Britain.

But the image most Americans retain in their mind is of Nixon standing on the steps of a Marine helicopter the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, his arm raised for that familiar slashing, defiant last farewell to official Washington and the White House he had coveted and loved for so many years.

There is no question that Nixon's address to the World Affairs Council was a tour de force. The former President, after asking that the lectern be removed from the head table, stood and spoke on U.S.-Soviet relations for more than half an hour without apparent reference to a text or note of any kind, except when he pulled out a slip of paper to read a quotation from Winston Churchill.

His address barely strayed from a 15-page advance text distributed to the media. And the only hint of any reference to Watergate or the disgrace of the Nixon White House was when Nixon interrupted himself to ask, "May I be permitted a personal reference?" He then noted that "I have won some great victories and suffered some shattering defeats." His point was that through it all, he was sustained by his deep and abiding faith in the United States, and that this feeling is shared by many American friends abroad.

This was not another new Nixon. It was not a resurrected Nixon. It was Richard Nixon himself, just about as he always has been. There was the same hint of awkwardness as he walked along the head table shaking hands and extending greetings to old friends; the same exaggerated eyebrows soaring in glee at someone's joke; the same ski-run nose; the same jowls; the same chest thrusting out and arms stiff at his side as he made a particular point in his speech; the same perspiration on his upper lip, wiped away from time to time with a handkerchief.

He is a little grayer and his voice a little huskier, but he does not look significantly older than that fateful day in 1974. In fact, he looks remarkably fit for a 73-year-old man, compared even with the current resident of the White House.

And there still was a spark of that old cutting Nixon wit. Before the former President spoke, a roar rose up out of the audience when a World Affairs Council official announced that one of the forthcoming speakers would be Assemblyman Tom Hayden, an old Nixon foe from Vietnam War days.

As he began his address, Nixon told the council members, "I know your interests are very broad. But this is the first time I've ever advanced for Jane Fonda."

Nixon's hands provided perhaps the one tip-off to a man beginning to suffer some from age, or perhaps a certain nervous tension. They were in constant motion in front of him as he spoke. Sometimes they pointed or made a cutting motion for emphasis. Mostly, however, one hand was folded over the other with thumbs interlocked or the two were clasped together, fingers intertwined.

One would clasp the other so tightly that you could see white impressions in the skin of the other when he moved his hands to a fresh gesture. It seemed he held them so tightly to keep them from shaking just a little.

But in the end, it was the smile that dominated the Nixon impression, the smile that radiated as he sat and listened to wave after wave of applause.

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