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Memo Full of Self-Pity Shows Yet Another Side of Nixon

By David Shribman

The president is angry. He invites administration officials to a church service and no one gives him credit. He calls a Chicago political figure to wish him well in a cancer operation and the press never writes a word. His wife holds a party for underprivileged children and the public never finds out. No wonder no one sees his great warmth. He's doing all these good deeds and they're being ignored.

The president was Richard Nixon, and his 11-page memorandum complaining that the voters never hear about his inner goodness and the little everyday touches that make him so human is one of the most remarkable presidential papers ever prepared. It was released this summer and, like the president's thoughtful call to the Purdue football coach after the Boilermakers were trounced by Ohio State, was all but ignored by the press.

That's a pity, because in the annals of presidential self-pity there is little to match this memorandum, which was prepared in December 1970 and has slept innocently in the archives for nearly four decades. As a result, it has been all but forgotten that Nixon, in his own words, went "far beyond any previous president in this century in breaking our backs to be nicey-nice to the Cabinet, staff, the Congress, etc., around Christmastime in terms of activities that show personal concern, not only for them, but for their families."

Six decades after his emergence on the national scene -- a place he would occupy as anti-communist House member, cruelly ambitious Senate candidate, obsequious vice president, three-time Republican presidential nominee, bitter gubernatorial contender, 37th president, diplomatic magician and Watergate unindicted co-conspirator -- there have been many Nixons.

There was the combative Nixon, brutalizing Helen Gahagan Douglas in a famous 1950 Senate campaign, and the brilliant Nixon, wowing the American Society of Newspaper Editors with a fluent speech delivered without notes.

There was the Checkers Nixon, wagering his whole political career and persona on a little dog and his wife's cloth coat, and the analytic Nixon, with peerless knowledge of the world and the way it worked.

There was the haggard Nixon, sick and unshaven in his debate with John F. Kennedy, and the polished Nixon, a match for Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev.

There was the self-proclaimed New Nixon, back from his 1960 presidential election defeat, tanned, rested and ready, reclaiming the GOP mantle in 1968, and the secretive, manipulative Nixon with a curious attraction to tape-recording devices.

There was the Nixon who was determined to "bring us together" and who spoke of the "lift of a driving dream" -- and the one who, fleeing Washington in a military helicopter on an August afternoon, saw his own dream in tatters.

And there is, in these 11 pages, another Nixon entirely, human only in his desperate yearning to be regarded as human.

For this is a president who is troubled that his humanity is not being harnessed for his re-election campaign. "There are such little things, such as the treatment of household staff, the elevator operators, the office staff, the calls that I make to people when they are sick, even though they no longer mean anything to anybody," he writes, adding that he has followed his aides' advice and spent more time with Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials.

"No president," he continues, "could have done more than I have done in this respect and particularly in the sense that I have treated them like dignified human beings, and not like dirt under my feet."

This aspect of Nixon is worth remarking upon, not to pick on the dead, nor to stamp out any revisionism that Nixon's reputation may be enjoying, but because this memo, which shows the president at perhaps his smallest, underlines how Nixon is an exception to an American rule -- that the White House enhances rather than diminishes its occupant.

The White House made Andrew Jackson a bigger man. It catapulted Abraham Lincoln into the firmament of the greatest Americans ever. It gave Theodore Roosevelt his broadest stage. It transformed Franklin Roosevelt from narrowness and selfishness to breadth and magnanimity. It made Harry Truman a respected world figure.

But not Nixon, despite his opening to China, despite his rapprochement with Russia, despite a domestic record that increasingly looks farsighted, despite a legacy that includes environmentalism and consumerism. There were many big ideas in the Nixon White House. But he defied the moral physics of the place, remaining small.

"To sum up," he writes, "what is needed is to get across those fundamental decencies and virtues which the great majority of Americans like -- hard work, warmth, kindness, consideration for others, willingness to take the heat and not to pass the buck and, above all, a man who always does what he thinks is right, regardless of the consequences. ... In almost two years, none of this has gotten across ..."

None of it ever did. He won re-election by a landslide margin anyhow, but before Election Day 1972 the crime of Watergate had been committed, and in 1973 the cover-up would be well under way. The crime and cover-up were heinous violations of the public trust, punished by the most humiliating political process undertaken in American civic life in a century. No amount of gracious thank-you notes to Charles DeGaulle's widow -- another nice touch for which Nixon never got the credit he believed he deserved -- could save him, or his reputation.

Good deeds need not be noticed, only performed. They are more remarkable when they are done than when they are remarked upon. Little children and grown adults are taught this. And so the tragedy of Nixon wasn't that he was Everyman, as some of the commentators remarked at the time of his resignation. It was that he didn't know what every man, woman and child knew, which is that good deeds are their own reward.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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