No one perpetually fascinated and repelled me as much as Richard Nixon. His sallow skin, natural scowl and forced smile, his slicked back hair, as black as shoe-polish, his arms flung high over his head in a two-fisted "V for victory" salute, the image was riveting.
My "summer of love" was spent not in the United States, but in Brussels. I was studying economics while the events that would transform America were unfolding. The growing anti-war protests and "love-ins" that signaled the emergence of the boomers as a demographically empowered generation, seemed somehow less momentous when seen on a flickering black n white television screen a continent away.
I was smoking Gitanes while my peers were getting high. While they were downing tequila, beer, and LSD, I was sipping Beaujolais -- deliberately detached from the countercultural fury engulfing my country. But every now and then, America penetrated my Euro-cool.
A wave of envy swept through me, for instance, as I watched my former classmates converge at Max Yasgur's farm near Bethel, New York for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. While the 400,000 peaceniks were celebrating music, sex, drugs, and of course, ourselves, I was driving to an international trade conference near the ancient city of Bruges. I was missing my generation's ultimate party.
I watched Neil Armstrong take his "small step for man" with Canadian and European friends after a day of hiking through the Swiss Alps. Though marketed as the giant leap for mankind, the moon walk was a profoundly American triumph. I missed being able to share it with fellow Americans.
But no one perpetually fascinated and repelled me as much as Richard Nixon. Though Kennedy had dominated their presidential debate thanks to better makeup and softer lighting, Nixon, in his own weird way, seemed made for black-and-white TV. His sallow skin, natural scowl and forced smile, his slicked back hair, as black as shoe-polish, his arms flung high over his head in a two-fisted "V for victory" salute, the image was riveting. I could not tear myself away from the inauguration coverage. The ultimate come-back kid, Nixon had clawed his way back into public life from political ignominy and defeats that would have destroyed a less driven, or perhaps saner man. His bitterness should have been a warning to us though: we would have Nixon to kick around again.
He had inherited the Vietnam war, of course. The American death toll had already reached 34,000 on that cold, cloudy day in January when he became our 37th president. But Nixon, who had vowed as a candidate to end the war, quickly made it worse. Within 100 days in office, he had quietly authorized "Operation Breakfast," the secret bombing of Cambodia. Eventually came his Vietnamization-plan designed primarily to extricate America from the increasingly bloody, unpopular war.
Nixon biographer Joan Hoff wrote that LBJ had given his successor some transition advice: beware of anti-war protesters and national security leaks -- counsel that Nixon clearly took to heart. Within 100 days of his swearing in, he had authorized 17 wiretaps on the phones of journalists critical of the war and on White House staff suspected of anti-war sympathies. Among them was my former New York Times colleague, William Safire, the brilliant speechwriter who would coin the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" for Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Nixon's paranoia intensified over time. His obsession with secrecy and defeating enemies, at home and abroad, would ultimately destroy his presidency.
It took me years to appreciate some of this tragic president's foreign policy achievements -- most overshadowed by Vietnam and of course, by Watergate. Nixon's opening to China, (which Mao had eagerly sought), implemented by Henry Kissinger, split the Communist bloc, pressured the Soviet Union, and changed our strategic map forever. And although he had not written the treaty, Nixon quickly sent back to the Senate an arms control accord that it had initially spurned "the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," under which over 100 nations pledged not to build nuclear weapons and Washington and Moscow vowed to move towards ridding themselves of their own atomic arsenals. This time, the Senate approved its ratification.
Then came a second equally dramatic initiative: Nixon, searching for a dramatic gesture amid growing opposition to Vietnam, unilaterally renounced germ weapons. Under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention that he pioneered three years later, over 100 nations banned the possession of deadly biological weapons except for research into such defense measures as vaccines, detectors, and protective gear. It was the world's first treaty to ban an entire class of weapons.