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NIXON LIBRARY : THE VOICES : From Annenberg to Ziegler, Views of Nixon--Then and Now

July 17, 1990|KRISTINA LINDGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is nearly 16 years since Richard M. Nixon became the first President in history to resign from the White House under threat of impeachment.

His name and his long political career have left an indelible mark on American society, and those who have crossed paths with Nixon have sharply divergent views on the man.

Some see him as a scoundrel who wrapped himself in the flag, a ruthless politician who fanned anti-communist hysteria, all as a means to obtain power.

Others see him as a true American hero who rose from modest beginnings to "walk with giants"--someone who will be remembered as a diplomat and statesman along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

Still others see him as a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw.

In these interviews, we ask people who were there to remember the man and assess his legacy.

As Republican counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee's Watergate proceedings, Fred Dalton Thompson watched from a ringside seat as the drama that would topple the presidency began to unfold in 1973.

As the scandal unraveled, Nixon failed to gauge the depth of the problem, said Thompson, an attorney with offices in Washington and Tennessee who has become a successful character actor with meaty parts in films such as "The Hunt for Red October," "Days of Thunder" and "Die Hard II."

"Every step of the way, he misjudges . . . he just keeps getting deeper and deeper into it," Thompson recalled.

"Nixon always had a style--he seemed to be uneasy, he was not a natural politician. His personal mannerisms just rubbed people the wrong way," he said. "He was his worst enemy in many respects. . . . He gave (his opponents) the hammer to hit him with (in Watergate), and they did it with a vengeance."

Assessing Nixon's presidency, Thompson called him "kind of a good administrator, a middle-of-the-road President who presided over relative prosperity."

But Nixon's legacy as President will be clouded until he gets Watergate behind him, Thompson said. And that won't happen as long as the ex-President continues to minimize the scandal and his role in it.

"I'd feel a lot better if he did not refer to everything he did as 'mistakes,' " the lawyer said. "There's a difference between mistakes and acknowledging whether or not you violated the law. I'd also feel better (about Nixon and his presidency) if he didn't blame it on subordinates.

"Since when did subordinates ever run Richard Nixon's White House?"

Yet Watergate, Thompson believes, was not so momentous a threat to the nation's very foundation as many have said. "What you had was an age-old story of people with power who failed to meet the test . . . who abused power for high-minded reasons."

He was Nixon's most eloquent defender on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings. But it was Fullerton Rep. Charles E. Wiggins who ultimately advised the President to resign when White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig told him about the so-called "smoking gun" tape, which was about to be released.

"I told him I thought that whole episode would be so grossly misunderstood that (Nixon's) impeachment was a very likely event," said Wiggins, now 63 and a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Reno.

"I recommended . . . that the President strongly consider resigning. . . . It was the only thing I know about to this day that could link the President to Watergate."

On the tape, he recalled, Nixon in an "almost offhand kind of way" agreed with his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that the CIA should be ordered to tell the FBI to halt its Watergate investigation. That order was canceled when the FBI director protested to the White House. But the contents of the tape had initially been withheld from the House committee.

"I really don't think that was a basis to impeach our President," Wiggins said. But in those politically charged days of the early 1970s, "we didn't need much. There were thousands of people out to get Richard Nixon."

In Wiggins' view, the stain of Watergate has cost this country the wise counsel of one of its few remaining senior statesmen.

"Watergate has prevented him from being a world spokesman and leader that he is. They (Nixon and other U.S. Presidents) have had to meet in dark alleys and behind corners," he said. "It is so unjustified. He is really a fine person, a fine American. It's unfortunate that he got involved in trying to protect his friends who evidently did have a role in (Watergate). Mostly, he was trying to protect the presidency."

Daniel Ellsberg, the whiz kid scholar and war planner who became a leading critic of American involvement in Vietnam, is vehement: Richard Nixon, he says, is a "mass murderer" who pursued an unwinnable war.

Ellsberg said he leaked the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret file documenting the war's pursuit through 1968 that he gave to the media in 1971, for one reason: "To impress on the people that every other President had lied (about Vietnam) and that he (Nixon) might too."

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