Nixon's ultimate triumph

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 1994, 12:00am

WHEN considering the legacy of President Richard Nixon, it is useful to remember the lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, ''The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.'' In Mr Nixon's case, that might appear not to be true. The villain of Watergate in his later years succeeded in erasing many of the memories of his own wrongdoing. Instead of being remembered as the first president to have resigned in disgrace, he is often described as having been hounded from office. In explaining away Watergate, Mr Nixon might have paraphrased former President Ronald Reagan's defence of himself in the Iran-Contra scandal: ''It was my responsibility, but it wasn't my fault.'' Perhaps Mr Nixon does deserve some sympathy. Against the evils he perpetrated - including the bombing of Cambodia and the elevation of cynicism to a new level in federal politics - must be weighed such factors as his success in extricating the United States forces from Vietnam, the normalisation of relations with China and Mr Nixon's own later discovery of the virtues of patience and compassion.

And yet the evil for which Mr Nixon was responsible does live on in the continuing obsession of the Washington press corps with Watergate. Every possible transgression by a president, even one committed in another time and place contains the seed of a Watergate.

President Bill Clinton did not come to office pretending to be Snow White. Nonetheless, Mr Clinton is a popular president offering both leadership and innovation at home, despite his missteps overseas.

Just as Mr Nixon said that ''no more Vietnams'' should mean the US would not fail again, rather than that it would not try again, so ''no more Watergates'' should mean no more corrupted presidencies, rather than suggesting that all presidents must have a pristine past. It would be Watergate's ultimate triumph, and Mr Nixon's most pernicious legacy, if total cynicism were to become a way of life in Washington.