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Perspectives on Richard Nixon : A Reconciliation in the Political Family : The Democrat buried in the Nixon landslide of '72 pays his respects.

April 27, 1994|GEORGE McGOVERN | George McGovern, a former U.S. senator from South Dakota, was the Democrats' 1972 candidate for the presidency.

Of all the public figures in America whom I have known over the past 40 years, none exceeded Richard Nixon in the capacity to come back from political defeat and personal setback.

Mr. Nixon's most painful and shattering experience must surely have been the Watergate tragedy that forced him to resign the presidency he had won against my candidacy in his landslide victory of 1972. I can think of few other politicians with the personal toughness and tenacity to have survived and triumphed over so dark a chapter. If one of the tests of greatness is the capacity to convert overwhelming loss into a more compassionate disposition and an enlarged vision, then Richard Nixon passed that test in the years since 1974.

I lived for a time with a combination of disappointment, sadness and resentment toward Nixon and his associates in the wake of my defeat in 1972. But with the passage of time, those feelings faded and I made my peace with my old rival.

I telephoned him after Mrs. Nixon suffered a stroke shortly after his resignation from the White House. In the course of that conversation, I told him that his opening to China might be his greatest achievement. He agreed with that assessment.

We exchanged letters and calls from time to time after that and he sent me inscribed copies of his books.

In early January, 1984, I went to see him in New York at his daughter Tricia's apartment for the purpose of suggesting that he and I issue a joint statement urging President Reagan to meet with his Soviet counterpart. There had been no summit conference involving Washington and Moscow during the first three years of the Reagan Administration. Nixon strongly agreed with me on the urgency of such a meeting, but after careful consideration he decided that a public statement of this kind might be resented at the White House. Only an hour before my arrival, he had received a call from the President congratulating him on his 71st birthday.

In the spring of 1991, by coincidence I was on a flight from Washington to New York with him, and we talked about the presidential possibilities for 1992. I mentioned that some of my friends were urging me to make another presidential bid, 20 years after my 1972 campaign, and asked for his advice. He replied:

"If I were you, I would ask myself two questions: One, do I have something important to say that is not likely to be advanced by other potential candidates? And, two, would anyone pay any attention to me? If you can answer 'yes' to both of those questions, why not give it another try? You won't know whether or not you can win if you don't try."

That is the best advice I ever received about a possible presidential campaign.

During all my years in public life, Richard Nixon has been one of the few enduring and significant national leaders. His career has been so intertwined with my own that I feel, despite our political differences, as though an old member of my political family has gone. I will miss him.

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