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Jewish World Review Aug. 13, 1999 /1 Elul, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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Why this is still
the age of Nixon -- READING AND HEARING all those reminiscences on the 25th anniversary of Richard M. Nixon's leaving the White House before he could be impeached, it occurs that the comparisons between that disgraced president and the current one are really unfair. Bill Clinton is no Richard Nixon; Mr. Nixon had the grace to resign.

Much of the commentary, at least on the Right, seemed as blind to Richard Nixon's obvious faults as the Left always was to his under-appreciated virtues. (Respectable folk could never forgive him for seeing through Alger Hiss before everybody else finally did.)

In the course of his long, long self-rehabilitation, the historians finally took note of the two signal acts of self-abnegation that should have earned Mr. Nixon the Republic's eternal gratitude: Besides his decision to resign the presidency, there was his earlier one not to contest the presidential election of 1960, despite all those suspicious election returns from South Texas (Lyndon Johnson's domain) and Chicago (Mayor Daley the First's).

Richard Nixon understood that if he had continued to fight the inevitable either time, the results would have been destabilizing at a time when the president of the United States really was the leader of the Free World.

One may deplore the various ways Tricky Dick found to get into trouble, or even wish he had been formally impeached even after he left office, and still salute the man for the way he put the country's future above his own, once he was caught.

By resigning, Richard Nixon not only shored up America's position in the world, but the rule of law and American standards. Both of which have been eroded by the Senate's failure to convict Bill Clinton -- to such an extent that a lot of good people can't see much wrong with having a president who tells less than the truth under oath, and whose contempt for the judiciary now has been established beyond doubt by a judge in the Eastern District of Arkansas. But what th' heck, as they say, everybody does it. And if not, with a role model like William Jefferson Clinton, soon enough everybody will.

G-d, they say, looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America. And if the resignation of Richard Nixon was providential, giving both him and the country a new start, the acquittal of this president has not been without political benefits. If he escaped conviction, at least Bill Clinton was denied the crowning gift of martyrdom. Instead, wherever he goes, he carries with him the whiff of a man who beat the rap. And whenever he appears before groups that speak piously of high standards, his very presence will testify to just how low standards have really fallen, and how much they need to be restored.

At the Nixon funeral, where both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole spoke, strangely enough, it was the latter who came up with the only memorable observation. Senator Dole said ours was the Age of Nixon. Doubtless he meant it as a tribute to his old chief, but it is also an incisive criticism of the age, which seems to have adopted Richard Nixon's standards even as it sent him into exile.

If you doubt that assertion, just look around: The security files of political enemies wind up at the White House. The FBI and the IRS are dragged into politics. A president is impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Of course the parallels are not exact; Richard Nixon was never found in contempt of court. He was, however, disbarred, and that hasn't happened to this president. Yet.

But far from being in trouble with the legal establishment, President Clinton was invited to address the American Bar Association. Right after Webb Hubbell, convicted felon and former Associate Attorney General of the United States, had made a guest shot on a panel discussion of white-collar crime. (Who better to discuss that subject?)

Remember when pundits used to worry about the post-Watergate morality? The ABA's convention program, with its tilt toward the felonious and contemptuous, would seem to indicate that there was nothing to worry about. We've now come full circle and are deep into the post-post-Watergate morality. Or immorality. In short, which was how Bob Dole summed it up, we're still in the Age of Nixon.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate