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Watergate's 'Bitter Chalice' Recalled : Nixon Takes Seat on Elite French Academy of Arts

May 21, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The Academy of Fine Arts, one of France's most prestigious institutions, installed former President Richard M. Nixon into its select membership Wednesday in a traditional and picturesque ceremony that honored his contribution to French culture.

Under the cupola of the Institute of France along the Seine River, a smiling and relaxed Nixon, clearly enjoying the prolonged applause, took the seat in the academy that has been vacant since the death of Polish-born American pianist Artur Rubinstein in 1982.

The 74-year-old Nixon, who met President Francois Mitterrand and Premier Jacques Chirac before the ceremony, paid tribute both to Rubinstein and to the late President Charles de Gaulle in his speech of acceptance.

"Without De Gaulle in the dark days of World War II and thereafter," said Nixon, "the France we know today--strong, prosperous and independent--would not be in existence."

In his speech of welcome, Arnaud d'Hautezives, a painter who is president of the Academy of Fine Arts, made reference to "the bitter chalice" that Nixon was forced to drink during "the rough sport" of being President of the United States.

Despite Watergate and his resignation under pressure in 1974, Nixon has maintained a good deal of popularity in France. The Watergate scandal has always puzzled many French who look on Nixon as probably the most astute American President in recent years in the field of foreign affairs.

D'Hautezives, explaining the reason for Nixon's election, praised him for introducing legislation while President that allowed a tax deduction to Americans who financed cultural projects overseas. This law encouraged Americans to contribute funds for the restoration of the Chateau at Versailles and the home of the impressionist painter Claude Monet at Giverny.

The Academy of Fine Arts, which can trace its roots to the Royal Academy of Painting founded by King Louis XIV in 1648, has a maximum of 50 French members and 15 foreign members. New members are elected by secret ballot among the membership.

Aside from Nixon, the foreign members include Spanish painter Salvador Dali, American painter Andrew Wyeth and Italian film director Federico Fellini.

French members of the academy showed up for the ceremony in their uniforms of formal black tails with wide lapels brocaded in green and gold, a sword, a tri-cornered hat and a flowing cape.542402661not their swords when entering the ceremonial amphitheater. The foreign members such as Nixon do not wear uniforms.

Artistic Issues

The academy, which meets weekly to discuss artistic issues and sponsors lectures and prizes in art every year, is one of five that make up what is known as the Institute of France. The best known and most honored is the French Academy, 40 distinguished authors who monitor use of the French language and write the official dictionary that is used in France.

By tradition, members of any of the five academies, in what is regarded as one of the most prestigious identifications possible in France, describe themselves as members of "the Institute."

Another American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was elected a member of the Institute's Academy of Political and Moral Sciences in 1952 when he was supreme allied commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Europe. In that ceremony, Vernon A. Walters, then an Army colonel, interpreted Eisenhower's remarks into French. In a gesture that recalled the earlier ceremony, Nixon asked Gen. Walters, now the American ambassador to the United Nations, to attend the ceremony 35 years later and interpret Nixon's remarks into French.

Played Classical Music

Following French tradition, Nixon devoted most of his acceptance speech to praising his predecessor Rubinstein, who died in Geneva at the age of 95. Nixon recalled his first meeting with Rubinstein in 1952. "I was particularly impressed to meet him," said Nixon, "because as a young boy I had once played classical music on the piano."

Nixon also told the Academy that the law granting tax deductions for overseas cultural contributions was introduced at the suggestion of an American expatriate in France, Florence van der Kemp, who was the curator of Versailles.

"I felt," Nixon said, "that encouraging Americans to contribute to the heritage of France, one of our oldest allies, would be one way to remind ourselves that the past in many ways is infinitely more important than the present."

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