Nixon refuses to lie down and die

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He may not be the Christmas present most Americans would ask for. But, for the umpteenth time in a career now stretching beyond the grave, Richard Nixon is back. Turn which way you will this festive season: there is no escaping the disgraced, reviled, but endlessly fascinating 37th President.

In no particular order, he is 1) protagonist of a new Oliver Stone epic that promises to be both box office smash and likely Academy Awards nominee; 2) co-star of a praised made-for-TV film Kissinger and Nixon dealing with the wind-down of the Vietnam War; 3) the brooding presence behind 50,000 pages of papers from the Nixon White House, newly released by the National Archives; and 4) a ghost increasingly summoned by his Republican party in the Whitewater probe, 1995's convoluted imitation of the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon 20 years ago.

Yesterday, with the opening of Mr Stone's film Nixon, it was the big screen Tricky Dick who was making the headlines - and Anthony Hopkins' remarkable portrayal of him.

Astonishingly, the treatment of Nixon by a director whose obsession with dark and far-fetched plots produced the nonsensical JFK, is almost even- handed. No plotter was darker than Richard Nixon. Yet so turbulent, extraordinary was his story that Mr Stone has been reduced to a relative respect for the facts and something akin to sympathy.

Of course there are embellishments. Having let conspiracy theory run riot in JFK, he cannot resist bringing Nixon in on the alleged plan to assassinate Fidel Castro, which then metamorphoses into the presumed plot to kill Kennedy. Images of the president as a pill-swallowing, whisky- swilling neurotic as well as wrenching scenes from the Nixon marriage owe more to Mr Stone's imagination than any record.

Not surprisingly the Nixon family has already condemned the film as "erroneous and malicious...character assassination," with his daughters Tricia and Julie accusing Mr Stone of deliberately waiting until their parents were dead to produce a picture of the Nixons' private life "calculated solely to defame and degrade".

The staunchest defenders of cinematic licence will concede that Mr Hopkins doesn't look like Nixon, and flunks the trademark rasping baritone voice. But the real Nixon is stunningly conveyed: Nixon the far-seeing statesman, Nixon the ruthless politician, the Nixon of few physical graces, cold and distant, fraught with insecurity and paranoia and obsessed by the Kennedys.

But if Nixon is a figure of the past, cross-references to the present are never far away. The documents from the National Archives, for instance, show Bob Dole, then Republican party chairman, asking Mr Nixon for favours and assuring him in early 1973 that outside Washington, Watergate was no big deal. Today of course, Mr Dole is running to take Mr Nixon's old job next year.

And then there's Whitewater. Once again the White House is stonewalling congressional demands for confidential material which could throw light on a scandal. This time a Democratic president invokes executive privilege in a battle which may, like the Watergate tapes, only be settled in court. "Imagine Mr Nixon trying to tell the Congress we're not going to hand them over," fulminates one Senator who seeks the notes in question. "It's wrong in Watergate, it's wrong in Whitewater."

The Nixon boom is not over. More films will be mined from the rich seams of his character, while only 63 hours of the 3,700 hours of his secret Oval Office tapes have been released, and only a fraction of the Nixon administration documents.