- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence. …

T.S. Eliot

Wh-a-a-t? Mark Felt was Deep Throat? And here all along we thought it was the shadowy Hal Holbrook. For the Nixon Years long ago took on the look of a classic old movie, specifically a film noir you might run across in the middle of the night on TV and be unable to turn off. You know you really should be getting some sleep, but the story — and the characters — cast a spell.

It was Bob Dole, that least poetic of politicians, who said it at the Nixon funeral in 1994, which was a show in itself: The last half-century of American history would be remembered as the Age of Nixon.

Like a lot of things Bob Dole says, it had the unexpected, even unsuspected, ring of uncomfortable truth once spoken out loud. We had never thought of it that way before. Usually when people attribute a whole age to someone (the Age of Pericles, the Age of Louis XIV) there is something stately, or heroic, something capital-H History, about the name they choose to define a whole age. But here was a figure most of us never thought of as towering over his times but rather as the politician who was just always, irritatingly there.

Even when he was offstage, Richard Nixon was just waiting for his next improbable entry — and disgraceful exit. If there’s such a thing as being polarizing without being in the least charismatic, Richard M. Nixon was that rare thing.

And now he-e’s… back. Not in his century but this one, too. On the front page, complete with all the surviving members of the cast, still snarling at each other over who betrayed whom, who was the hero and who the knave.

The man won’t stay dead. He insists on shaping these times, too, just as he shaped how Americans now look at presidents — suspiciously.

Dwight Eisenhower, the trusted father figure who, strangely enough, chose his complete opposite, Richard Nixon, as his running mate in 1952, is long gone. Ike was reassuringly part of the past even when present, while Dick Nixon refuses to fade away even now. Neither will Mark Felt. At 91, he’s still blabbing secrets, this time for the record. And we’re still fascinated despite ourselves.

To an uncomfortable extent, the times are still, for better or worse or both, Nixonian. The Clintonesque was but a much milder version of the same disingenuous style, the way Bill Clinton was Richard Nixon without any great issues.

When we judge Richard Nixon, or Mark Felt, we’re still saying something revealing about ourselves. So what do you think — was this 91-year-old man on a walker once really a Secret Patriot, or a self-serving stoolie?

Why not both? Mark Felt seems to have had a very mixed bag of motives. And still does. (Gosh, just like the rest of us.) According to the Authorized Version, he leaked word of a crime to get the truth out and uphold the honor of the FBI to which he had devoted his life. He saw the Bureau being manipulated to cover up crimes and so, like the heroic whistle-blower he was, he acted to save the agency he loved. And the republic. (Close curtain to applause.)

At the same time, here was Mark Felt’s chance to take his petty revenge on a president who had passed him over for the top job. Hey, aren’t the rules made to be broken in a good cause? Mark Felt should know; he would be indicted and convicted for a couple of illegal entries himself during the Vietnam years, and, like Richard Nixon, he would be pardoned. And justice would be thwarted.

It’s impossible to separate this minor but perhaps key historical figure into neat categories. Just as it is impossible to look on the man who was arguably the most malevolent of American presidents without also seeing the pathos of Richard Nixon’s ceaselessly striving life.

What shifting dreams and memories drifted through his mind as he sat alone with his thoughts in the White House during his final days there, listening to Richard Rodgers’ score for “Victory at Sea” on the stereo? Imagine: To have come so far, to have risen so high, and to have been been brought so low, and still to dream/plot on, not like wise old Prospero exiled to his magical isle, but like an Americanized Napoleon on Elba… what a fate. Even now he stews and poses in the American memory while the remains of his gang still point fingers at one other, arguing over who’s guiltier.

We have an idea future Americans will be trying to sort out Richard M. Nixon long after they’ve grown bored with whoever’s president at the time. In assessing his deeply marred character, we hope they won’t miss the thin skein of idealism that runs through it, the very American yearning to be cleansed of the corruption of our past and know peace at last.

To borrow a phrase from the old Shaker hymn, ‘tis the gift to be simple that always eluded the complicated Mr. Nixon, who confused confession with weakness, and, though he could be brutal, was anything but simple. (“When true simplicity is gained to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed. .. .”)

As for Mark Felt, his is a very American story, too. Now in his waning years, why shouldn’t he pick up a little fame — well, notoriety — and maybe a little cash, too, for telling his secret?

To quote the lawyer/agent who broke this story in Vanity Fair — what a perfect name and venue for this kind of story — the family hopes this revelation will produce “at least enough money to pay some bills.” Or as Hal Holbrook advised Woodstein in the movie version: “Follow the money.”

The truth often picks some less than attractive characters to tell it. Remember Linda Tripp? And the villain of the story may surprise us, too. How could a president so shrewd do such stupid things? To lie well has long been an accepted part of statecraft, at least in sophisticated circles. It’s lying unconvincingly that shocks in a president.

With no Dale Bumpers to defend him, Richard Nixon would choose resignation rather than formal impeachment, but he immediately set out on an almost Soviet-style campaign of rehabilitation, a kind of Long March back into the news — and he’s still at it postmortem.

The most charmless of historical figures, Dick Nixon still works his charm. Who would have thought the same old gang — Pat Buchanan, Charles Colson, John Dean — would still be exchanging their versions of events 30 years later on the nightly “news”?

Some things have changed:

Perjury and obstruction of justice have come to be taken less seriously where the presidency is concerned. They might still be impeachable offenses but not convictable ones, being considered “only personal” crimes, or maybe not even that.

And now a couple of reporters are about to be sent to jail for what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are still honored for doing — that is, not revealing their sources.

But some things remain the same:

Pardons are still used to evade rather than achieve justice, and they still leave the same bad taste behind. Bad people still do good things — and, frightening thought, vice-versa.

The American republic is still a work in progress, and, after two centuries going on three, still young. And the truth will still out.

But whether it will set us free depends on whether we will confront it. In short, it is still the Age of Nixon.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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