Can Nixon be rehabilitated?

"YOU HAVE saved this country, Mr. President," Henry Kissinger told Richard Nixon on April 17, l973. "The history books will show that - when no-one will know what Watergate means." Depending on where you stand, that pronouncement either confirms your view of Kissinger as one of the most prescient men in history, or reminds you why you always hated him.

Either way, the historians have not yet entirely caught up with the President's National Security Advisor: Nixon is still, for the most part, a reviled figure in American politics, better known for the way in which he left the White House 25 years ago this month than for anything he did while he was there.

To a surprising degree, Nixon is still with America. He remains a figure of popular culture, the star of a new knockabout comedy called Dick!, which is this year's political hit film (last year we had Wag the Dog). He is frequently referred to as the embodiment of political intrigue and malfeasance, even in an era which has plenty of other negative role models. Things have shifted, of course - just as Nixon intended and thought that they would. From within a few years of his resignation, he was intent on a comeback in the hearts and especially in the minds of Americans.

From his first interview with David Frost in 1977 until his death in 1994, everything which Nixon did was geared towards rebuilding his image, restoring some lustre to his personal reputation, if not his Presidency. And in many respects, he succeeded.

He advised both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and Bill Clinton spoke kind words after his death. At roughly five-year intervals since Nixon left office, the newspapers and magazines have taken a quick look to see if the man had been rehabilitated. But it is rather like opening the oven to see if the souffle has risen yet - every time there is that same dish of soggy, unpromising goo, with no signs that it will rise.

Nixon's record is now being re-examined again. The latest effort is a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Irwin Gellman, covering Nixon's time in Congress. These are key years for the disparagers of Richard Milhous Nixon, years in which, according to his accusers, he zealously joined in the McCarthyite persecutions and participated in dark conspiracies in order to win power and influence.

Gellman looks closely at the accusations of Red-baiting and finds them not proven. In general he draws a sympathetic portrait of a man who was fighting, from a humble background, for political power in much the same way as many others. Neither corrupt nor evil, Nixon is just another politician, and an admirable one in many ways, "a success story in a troubled era, one who steered a sensible anti-Communist course against the excess of McCarthy and other extreme right-wingers." The book is only the first volume of three.

Nixon revisionism has also centred on his record of domestic activity. Professor Mel Small, in his book, The Presidency of Richard Nixon, describes a man who is far more "liberal" in the American sense - which is to say left-wing - than anyone thought at the time.

He lowered the voting age to 18, created the Environmental Protection Agency and was even in a small way responsible for the triumph of America's women's soccer team - he created a programme which increased financial support for women's athletic activities. "Nixon wasn't liberal in his philosophy," he says, "But in terms of the legislation he signed off on, he clearly was the country's last liberal president." Gellman and Small are by no means the first to attempt a resuscitation of Nixon's reputation. There was, for instance, the biography by Jonathan Aitken (yes, that Jonathan Aitken, and with friends like that, who needs enemies). But this is part of what promises to be a more serious evaluation, based on access to all of Nixon's papers. So should we now expect to see Nixon the hero shining through?

One of the common themes of the New Nixon is an attempt to see him in his age. Nixon's era encompasess some of the most controversial events of US history, a time from which it is only now extricating itself. The Cold War had a strange and distorting effect on this nation's politics as on every other. Vietnam is still the stuff of bar room fights as well as personal traumas and talk-show confrontations. It is starting to be possible, just, for academics to find a way to see these years in a more objective fashion, and it may be that as they do, Nixon is seen more as part of his time, less a demonic individual.

And as the events of the Seventies come to seem further away, then Watergate will start inevitably to feel as distant as the Teapot Dome and other long-dead scandals. Judgements will soften; Watergate will be seen as part of larger developments and themes - the problems of authority in the late 20th century, the increase in partisanship in American politics, and so on.

For Nixon's friends on the American right, there is a more pressing reason to re-evaluate his reputation: there is another figure against whom to compare him now, another President who faced impeachment. The screaming from the right while Bill Clinton was on the ropes last year made it clear Nixon's supporters had not forgotten, and they wanted blood. The memory of Nixon was invoked almost daily, with the conservative wing of the Republican Party claiming a symmetry between the two cases that often seemed very hard to find in the sordid tales of White House sex. But for the right, this was revenge. Clinton should do what Nixon had done, they said: he should resign. And when he escaped, there was palpable anger that while Tricky Dicky had been ousted, Slick Willy remained in office.

That eminently conservative newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, found in a poll that 76 percent of Americans believe that "other political scandals" of the past 25 years were "just as bad" as Watergate, a clear attempt to relativise the Nixon years. Now, this is odd enough in itself: the conservative right believes above all else that morality is not relative, but absolute. And it also seems strange to trumpet the fact that the others were "just as bad" as Nixon, not that he was right but that others were just as wrong. But then this game is strictly partisan.

There is something oddly symmetrical about the careers of Clinton and Nixon in some respects. Both were deeply hated by the Washington establishment in their day, though nowadays you would probably find it easier to hear kind words said of Nixon than of Clinton. Both came to power at a moment when the political spirit of the age seemed to be moving against them.

"The truth about Nixon is not that he was a liberal, but that he was a pragmatist reacting to a political environment shaped by liberals," wrote EJ Dionne, The Washington Post columnist, of the idea that Nixon was a liberal. "Many of the liberal initiatives he signed were pushed on him by a Democratic Congress."

In the same way, Clinton's two terms have been shaped by the Republican Party in Congress. But all of this relativisation cannot be pushed too far. The evidence of Nixon's White House years is too compelling, too immediate and too obvious to be "Snopaked" away with the years. Clinton and Nixon were both accused of a cover-up, it is true. But Clinton was covering up a relationship with an intern. Nixon was covering up burglaries and buggings of his political opponents. And Nixon was ordering those offences himself on a daily basis.

Remember his words when he demanded a break in at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. "I want them just to break in and take it out. Do you understand?" he says. "You're to break into the place, rifle the files and bring them in." This is not the same as arguing about the meaning of a sexual relationship: this is an attempt to subvert democracy.

Nixon, above all politicians, contributed to the massive collapse of public confidence in the political class in the US. Perhaps, ironically, if he had never existed, Americans might have been more shocked by Bill Clinton, and perhaps they might have been ready to get rid of him. But after all that they had already seen, few can have been that shocked. The only sense in which Nixon saved America was that he resigned when he did.

The Contender : Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946-1952, is by Irwin Gellman