The dark streak



August 9, August 9...I knew that something big happened on this date, but what? Was I referencing the A bomb we dropped on Nagasaki on this date in '45? Or the Charles Manson gang's murder of Sharon Tate on August 9 in '69? Or the fact that Jerry Garcia departed this world for that Dark Star in the sky on August 9 in '95?

And then I remembered. I conjured the image of somebody wiggling his fingers in the semblance of a victory salute at the door of a chopper on the White House lawn, seconds before he flew off into exile and disgrace. That indeed was 36 years ago today, on the first and only occasion when a president quit his job.

So rather than marinate in the latest transient brouhaha of the moment, I'm in the mood to mark this day by pondering the Richard Nixon enigma - the shrewd pragmatic centrist who nonetheless pioneered the negative partisan tactics, and stoked the deep-seated cultural resentments, that badly stain our politics today.

It's no easy job to gauge the guy. As historian James MacGregor Burns once remarked, "How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic president, so brilliant and so morally lacking?" We're talking here about a character out of Shakespeare; surely no other president has been dissected for tragic and comic purposes by so many actors and comics - at least three dozen, by my count - including Frank Langella, Anthony Hopkins, Beau Bridges, Rip Torn, Philip Baker Hall, Dan Hedaya, Lane Smith, Rich Little, Dan Aykroyd, and David Frye.

Nixon himself was not a great actor; unlike most successful politicians, he was incapable of faking bonhomie with his fellow man. In one famous attempt at macho small talk, he asked TV host David Frost, "So, did you do any fornicating this weekend?" But his social weirdness was probably the least of his complexities. Consider, instead, these noteworthy aspects of his presidential record:

He ended the military draft, launched detente with the Soviets, opened relations with communist China, and championed an affirmation-action that targeted federal contractors. By affixing his signature to legislation, he created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and federal legal aid for the poor. If Dick Nixon, a lifelong Republican, was alive today and advocating those kinds of policies, one can only imagine how conservatives would react. Andrew Breitbart would probably be editing a video of Nixon purportedly sharing a foxhole with the New Black Panthers.

But the passage of time hasn't dulled the edges of Nixon's well-documented mendacity. According to the 200 participating scholars in the latest survey sponsored by the Siena College Research Institute, Nixon, despite his manifest policy achievements, ranks 30th of the 44 presidents, basically because his toxic partisan instincts culminated in an unprecedented scandal of his own making. Today his name remains a synonym for criminal corruption, all because he allowed himself to be consumed by his insecurities. Watergate was a complex constitutional crisis, but, in essence, it was the product of Nixon's obsession with enemies, both real and imagined, and his hard-wired vengeful impulses.

The Pulitzer-winning writer J. Anthony Lukas, in his seminal '70s book Nightmare, probably framed it best: "As his perversions of power multiplied, he could only maintain some sense of his own morality by stoking the fires of grievance which had fed him for so long. So he courted new enemies, new humiliations, new mortifications of the spirit. And ultimately, the enemies who had once been largely his own private demons became very palpable foes who tracked down and destroyed him. This is the dark streak that snakes through the Nixon years."

Or, as Shakespeare's Cassius said to Brutus, while riffing on the tragic flaws of human nature, flaws that every political miscreant seems to reveal anew:

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves..."