Nixon style lives on in White House: Although political opposites, Bill Clinton has much in common with the former president, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

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The Independent Online
THEY WERE separated in the White House by four presidents and two political generations, and they stood on opposite sides of the party divide. Yet when Bill Clinton delivered his funeral eulogy for Richard Nixon yesterday, he was speaking of a kindred spirit.

Outwardly of course, they were polar opposites. Clinton the warm, spontaneous and gregarious Southerner; Nixon shy, calculating and remote, without a colleague he could truly call a friend. But both shared a quite remarkable capacity to inspire loathing among their foes, on a scale unmatched by any president this century save Roosevelt. So much is plain even from their nicknames.

Whatever his successes, Nixon for one group of Americans would forever be just 'Tricky Dick,' the man from whom they would never buy a used car - still less a policy to bomb North Vietnam to the negotiating table. Decades later, for another type of America, Bill Clinton bears his old Arkansas epithet of 'Slick Willie.'

One reason, obviously, is a perceived lack of honesty. The sight of Nixon the Red-baiter in full cry after Alger Hiss, followed by the mawkishly self-pitying Nixon of the 'Checkers' speech, convinced many that this was a man who would tell any lie in pursuit of political advantage. And as the left hated Nixon, so a segment of the Right cannot stomach Clinton, the quintessential product of the libertarian 1960s.

In a real sense, parts of the electorate considered Richard Nixon then and Bill Clinton now to be 'illegitimate' presidents. For liberals, the 'dirty tricks' which smeared Nixon's opponents in the 1940s and 1950s disqualified him from office. Watergate was no surprise, just confirmation of what they had known all along.

In the case of Clinton, the tales of draft-dodging and philandering have had the same effect among conservatives. Hence the staying power of Whitewater. A man assumed to be honest would have shaken off the controversy - but, like Nixon, trustworthiness is not Clinton's strong suit. According to one poll, only 35 per cent of Americans believe he has 'the right set of characteristics to be President'.

In terms of policy, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon could not be more different: the former obsessed by domestic issues, for whom a foreign crisis is, by his own admission, a distraction. Foreign affairs, by contrast, were Nixon's meat and drink. But their styles of governing have much in common.

Clinton has no 'Prussian guard' of Haldeman and Erlichman running the White House machine: if he had, Whitewater would never have assumed the proportions it has. But like Nixon he sees politics in intensely personal terms. This president seems to exude genial affability, but his dislike of the press is reminiscent of Nixon's. When he spoke at the annual White House Correspondents dinner the other night, every joke was tinged with a positively Nixonian rancour.

Both, too, thrived on hi-tech electioneering. In 1968 Nixon fought the first made-for-TV campaign, an art which found apotheosis with the marketing of Bill Clinton in 1992. But the biggest similarity may be sheer resilience. Both men were from modest backgrounds, helped neither by blood nor money. Both thrived on risk-taking. For Bill Clinton, self-proclaimed 'Comeback Kid' of the 1992 campaign, no mistake is quite fatal, no cause quite lost. Each time our hero wriggles free.

So in a sense, and under infinitely more testing circumstances, did Nixon. 'Never quit,' his mother told him, and he never did. In 1962 his political career was reckoned to be over; six years on he was elected president. Another six years and it was Watergate and seemingly eternal disgrace. But when he died on 22 April, rehabilitation was virtually complete.

The day he suffered the stroke which would kill him, Nixon was preparing his speech for a Republican fund-raising event, at which he would be the star attraction. Well before that, the Bill Clinton who as a Rhodes Scholar in 1969 demonstrated against Nixon's conduct of the Vietnam war, was seeking the elder statesman's advice on foreign policy matters. Clinton probably realised that for all their differences, he and Richard Nixon were two of a kind.

(Photograph omitted)