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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Putting Nixon on the Spot--Sort Of : Video: A conversation with the former President at the Nixon Library is mostly a one-sided affair.

August 09, 1991|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The ad in the newspaper promised:

"Now you can put Nixon on the spot."

Yes. YES. YES! No one could pass up such a tempting offer. Here was my chance to be deluxe TV interviewer David Frost, to interrogate as brutally as Merv Griffin.

Nixon had probably already addressed the questions I wanted answered, but I hadn't seen all of his TV interviews or read any of his books.

So I met the challenge and drove to Yorba Linda for my duel with the nation's 37th President at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace.

The public figure Americans either abhor or adore awaited me in the Presidential Forum, a small, softly lit auditorium where Nixon was already speaking as I approached, vigorously defending ("It wasn't illegal . . .") his bugging of both reporters and officials of his own Administration.

He spoke passionately to his audience: 40 empty seats.

Later, other visitors would join me in the auditorium where bigger-than-life, speaking from a large monitor at the front of the room, Richard Milhous Nixon was on interactive television. The interaction was one-way, though.

I was live, Nixon on videotape.

Through the magic of pre-programming, Nixon runs continuously, regardless of whether anyone is in the auditorium to see and hear him. You have the option of interrupting with a question of your own choice. Sort of.

This may be our future. That is, the Presidential Forum may hint at a TV to come whereby we will call up news and historical events on a home screen the way one punches musical selections on a jukebox. Of course, the validity of the data will depend on who programs and controls the informational jukebox.

In this case, guess who.

At the rear of the auditorium are two video panels on which visitors can select from a menu of questions covering numerous aspects of Nixon's life ranging from his favorite meal to his political career and presidency. You pick a question by touching the panel. Then Nixon--in blue suit and tie and appearing more youthful in some settings than in others--responds on the monitor under an electronic printout of the designated question, which is put to him by a generic voice.

I don't like Nixon. Never have. So I got tough right away, selecting a question I new would put him on the spot.

"Are you sorry for Watergate?" the voice asked.

Nixon replied tersely that there was no way anyone could apologize or say he was sorry that "would exceed resigning the presidency of the United States." He added curtly, "That said it all, and I don't intend to say any more."

A non-response! I wanted to press him, demand that he be contrite. But there are no follow-ups in the Presidential Forum.

I punched another Watergate question: "How would you characterize Watergate?"

Benignly, as it turned out. "No one was killed in Watergate," Nixon said. "No one profited from Watergate. . . . No election was affected." He went on to say that his Administration's handling of Watergate allowed his old bogymen "the media and liberal Democrats to exploit the issue." The media sometimes wrong? A novel concept.

"What was involved here in the Watergate thing was the unfairness of it," Nixon went on. "Oh, there was a legitimate thing to investigate, but they allowed their advocacy to get ahead of their reporting."

I punched another media question: "Why was the media so tough on you?"

Nixon was philosophical. "They like fashion, and I'm not a fashion person. They like the trendy people, and I'm not a trendy person. They like froth. I'm someone who believes in substance. . . . I think it gets down to the fact that I am a conservative." Why, Nixon asserted, many in the press privately even resented his groundbreaking journey to China because "their boy hadn't done it, whoever their boy was." The let-bygones-be-bygones Nixon summed up: "Now having said that, let's simply say that's all in the past."

No lingering resentment? I was unconvinced. So I selected this question: "Were the media ever fair in their treatment of your presidency?"

A thoughtful Nixon spoke from the monitor. "I would say some people say that I got fair treatment on the China issue." He did not say if he agreed with them, though. But even if he did, that still left an awful lot of unfair treatment by the media, so I was glad to hear Nixon also say about us: "I don't hold personal grudges." However, he did say he doesn't respect many in the media, especially those who "sabotaged me, in my opinion, or tried to, when I was trying to bring the war to an honorable conclusion." But again, as a journalist myself, I was gratified to hear Nixon add about the media: "I don't hate 'em."

Such humanity. I wondered if I would ever be able to bury the hatchet like Nixon and be as generous to him as he is now with his old enemies the media. Perhaps not. I called up a final question before leaving, one about his favorite movies, and heard him express his admiration for "The Sting."

Very apt.

Nixon probably would like to ask me what I mean, but that said it all, and I don't intend to say any more.

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