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Last Will and Testament : BEYOND PEACE, By Richard Nixon (Random House: $23; 256 pp.)

May 08, 1994|Robert Dallek | Robert Dallek, a specialist in diplomatic and political history at UCLA, is the author of books on F.D.R., L.B.J. and Reagan

No politician in American history had a longer and more controversial career than Richard Nixon. His actions during his 48 years as a congressman, senator, vice president, gubernatorial candidate, president, writer and world statesman provoked uncommonly strong expressions of support and opposition.

Celebrated by some as a great peacemaker who delivered America from a nuclear war, Nixon has been excoriated by others as the most corrupt President ever to sit in the White House. Eulogized by admirers as a model of courageous determination, an exemplar of the self-made American who overcame much adversity, critics remember him as a self-pitying opportunist who permanently damaged the presidency and deepened the country's political cynicism.

When commentators divide so sharply over a public figure, they take refuge in the observation that "history will judge," meaning, "in time, my side of the argument will be vindicated." But good, fair-minded history is less devoted to judging than trying to understand and explain. There is, of course, no objective, antiseptic history, no bias-free rendering of the past; score-settling can be as common among historians as among political advocates. But future generations, safely removed from the issues that stirred old passions, will be better able to take on the historian's task and produce something closer to a balanced, dispassionate assessment of Richard Nixon than anything biographers might write now.

But it will not be easy. Scholars will have a deuce of a time making sense of Nixon's contradictions. They will wonder about the meteoric rise to the vice presidency of someone whose campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas and response to the Alger Hiss case made him a mean-spirited political figure with an affinity for dirty tricks. They will struggle to explain the rise to the presidency of a man whose stiff, standoffish personality was ill-suited to a television age--a time when charm and charisma counted for more than the power of someone's intellect and ideas, Nixon's long suits. They will be hard pressed to understand how the man some dubbed "the great American loser" achieved his 1972 landslide, one of the greatest in American presidential history.

On matters of foreign policy as well, students of Nixon's career will have some difficult questions to answer. How will they make sense of the gap between the early anti-Communist ideologue and the pragmatic proponent of detente with Soviet Russia and Communist China? How will they square Nixon's four-year extension of the war in Indochina with American defeat in its longest conflict? How will they balance the impulse to reach accommodations with Communist governments in Europe and Asia against the policy of overturning Salvador Allende's constitutionally elected, left-leaning government in Chile?

As for domestic affairs during Nixon's presidency, it will only add to the confusion. The mixture of conservative, anti-government rhetoric and actions with the embrace of liberal policies, like wage and price controls, environmental protection, school desegregation in the South and welfare and health care reforms, cry out for explanation. Nixon's unsuccessful nominations of two conservative Southerners for the Supreme Court, followed by the appointment of Harry Blackmun, one of the most liberal justices of the last 30 years, further complicates the story.

And what of the criminality of a presidential Administration supposedly so devoted to law and order? Why, moreover, didn't Nixon, who worked so hard to cover up the Watergate scandal, destroy the secret tapes that compelled him to give up his office? And finally, there is the puzzle of the return to respectability of the country's most disgraced chief executive. Was it largely Nixon's doing? Or was it principally the changing times?

Finding reasonable answers to these questions will test our powers of comprehension. But future biographers will have the advantage of access to tens of thousands of documents and thousands of recordings currently locked up in the National Archives. This material, which Nixon spent the last 20 years fighting to keep from public view, will go far to explain his motives and role in shaping his presidency. It will also give us insights into his character that the recollections of outside observers can not provide.

Nixon's nine post-presidential books, ranging from his memoirs, "RN," published in 1978, to his discussions of political leadership, Vietnam and American foreign policy in a Cold War and post-Cold War world, will become documents in the search for understanding.

"Beyond Peace," a succinct 250-page analysis of how America must approach the dilemmas of the coming century at home and abroad, will be seen as Nixon's last will and testament, a summing up of ideas that Nixon saw as his legacy to the country he loved, served and mis-served in his long career.

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