LIKE HOPE AND CRABGRASS, Richard Nixon springs eternal. Ever since the Great Fall in 1974, no matter how you tried to weed the fellow out, he was always there, always flashing the nervous smile from under the properly crinkled ski-jump nose, forever sweating in the midst of an air-conditioned world. And always reminding you that he ran your life for five eminently regrettable years. Still, until recently, there was always an element of "fun" in the game--every time Dick popped out from under his California rock, you could, hoe him right back under again with a few well-chosen comments about the world's most powerful un-indicated co-conspirator, and all that. It was all good clean fun, with a generously self-righteous flair. Richard Nixon, whipping boy for the soul of America, actually did some good those four years. The man was a sparring partner for a nation struggling against the fat of Bicentennial complacency, always offering his glass jaw as a sacrifice to a nation worried about whether it still held the thunder in its looping left hook. Only now he doesn't fall so easily.
The rehabilitation of Richard Nixon, though still in its infancy, is a frightening enough prospect to merit some serious attention even now. Gone are the "Honk If You Think He's Guilty" bumper stickers, given way to advertisements for RN, Nixon's slickly self-serving autobiography; vanished are the chanting, cheering crowds that streamed through the streets of Washington to celebrate on a hot summer night four years ago, replaced by the thousand or so who cheered the man like a hero out of exile when he visited Hardin. Ky. last week. The cheers are not loud, but they are insistent, and growing. After a slow start, Nixon's book has taken off on the bestseller lists, perhaps appropriately like a bat out of hell, and public interest in Nixon memorabilia is reported to be growing. Worse yet, it is more than morbid curiosity: a radio station in Miami reported two weeks ago that a poll of its listeners showed they would vote for Nixon over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54. The Lord may move in mysterious ways, but at times they are downright fearsome.
The problem, however, is not as it may appear on the surface. Poll or no, Nixon is not headed anywhere near the White House; the closest he could ever make it--and even this would depend on a particularly lunatic display by the admittedly eccentric California electorate--would be a return trip to the Senate. But despite the rumors--that he is preparing for a Senate run, or that he is awaiting the return of a Republican administration to provide him with an ambassadorship to somewhere in the Far East, perhaps China--the greatest danger is not that Nixon will return to public office. It is that he might return to plague the American heart.
THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, Richard Nixon remained a singularly bloodless character, an automaton with a five-o'clock shadow and an unerring ability to capitalize on the strong emotions he provoked but apparently could not feel. The classic opportunist, he was always running, always chasing after an Alger Hiss or running away from the Checkers mess, pursuing the phanton of "peace with honor" or retreating from the very real brown manila envelopes loaded with cash that his vice president used to collect every two weeks or so. As long as he was on the move-to China, to Russia, to San Clemente-he was at least predictable. It was when he slowed down, when he tried to play the role of the great American rather than the part of the cheap, grasping politico for which he was created, that he became dangerous. Nixon in tears after losing an election, Nixon rambling incoherently about his father's lemon ranch the day he resigned, Nixon waving gamely to the crowd as his helicopter prepared to take him from the White House for the last time, was the frightening Nixon, the man who made you realize how dangerous a raw emotional appeal can be. That is the Nixon who was signing autographs and waving to the Kentucky crowds this month.
For Nixon was meant to be bloodless, to be cold, to inspire no feelings except gnawing anxiety and perhaps grudging respect at his sheer resiliency. As soon as the crowds forget who he was and what he did--as soon as they forget the dike bombing and the "secret war" and the wiretappings and the dirty tricks--as soon as they remember only the "New Nixon," humble and repentent, brushing back the bitter tears to offer his countrymen some sage advice--then the man will have won his biggest prize.
What this "New Nixon" apparently wants, and what a particularly quick-moving crew of revisionist historians seems determined to give him, is a place in the history books considerably less corroded than the soiled niche he now holds. And what he is relying on are the exceptionally poor memories of the American people.
SO FEW SEEM to notice, or to care, that the new Nixon talks exactly like the old model--that the speech in Kentucky, for instance, rattled more sabres in a half-hour than the "get-tough" advisers to President Carter have managed to shake up in four months of trying. Nixon's Cold-War rhetoric, his simplistic approach to the problems of minorities, his bloody-axe technique of dealing with essential social services, make up the bewildering philosophy of a man rather remarkably frozen solid to the 1952 Republican platform. Even more bewildering, however, is that he has been able to mask this atavistic outlook with a "new look" of feigned humility, and has successfully cast himself as the tenacious underdog making yet another comeback. It just isn't fair.
It's not fair because Nixon was meant to be the villain. If ever there were a symbol of self-seeking irresponsibility, of dispassionate recklessness, of calculated indifference at a time of national trauma, it was Richard Nixon. To ignore that legacy, to forget the five year's agony that was his reign, to embrace the new Nixon simply because he seems so humble and harmless, is to remove the great glaring scar that reminds America of how badly it can be burnt. We can forgive, but we cannot forget; if we do, there are platoons of Nixons, nervous upper lips sweating in the fresh breeze, waiting to step in.