Of course, what was stirring about Nixon was that he took action, and he has been given fulsome credit for his foreign policy activism. But even here the picture is not unqualified glory. Nixon's opening to China - characteristically staged to coincide with the 1972 New Hampshire primaries - certainly brought that country in from the cold as far as the US was concerned, helping Nixon persuade the Kremlin that he meant business, and undoubtedly helping him to proceed with his Vietnam troop withdrawals. But historians are now suggesting that the initiative gave a failing Mao Tse-tung a surge of political credibility, thus prolonging his tyranny, and perhaps that of the current Chinese gerontocracy.
With the Soviet leadership, too, Nixon was the first president to make progress towards more stable nuclear weapons relationships - even while the arsenals grew and grew. But had Nixon's 'structure of peace' succeeded in institutionalising the nexus of East-West commercial and political relationships, it is possible that the Soviet Union might never have collapsed.
In fact, that first detente did not outlive Watergate. And it is worth observing that, much though Brezhnev and Nixon appeared to hit it off personally, the White House twice veered frighteningly towards a nuclear face-off during his term of office.
Nixon's speciality, in fact, was his studied but apparently unpredictable use of Machtpolitik - brute force applied under Henry Kissinger's 'madman theory'. This allowed the national security adviser to threaten the Soviet or Chinese leadership that unless they co-operated in superpower diplomacy, a dangerously unhinged president might do his worst. The examples of this were, in Indochina, his blitzes of Hanoi, the mining of Haiphong harbour, and the ruthless widening of the war to all Cambodia.
It worked in Vietnam, ultimately bombing the Communists to the conference table, and securing the 1973 Paris 'peace with honour' agreements. The price was heavy: the toll of all Indochina casualties was greater during Nixon's term than it had been in Lyndon Johnson's, not to speak of the bitterness among the combatants. But probably no other politician could have achieved this and ensured that the United States did not simply 'bug out' - Nixon was determined to use force again and again to ensure that the US was not humiliated.
We learn only from Alexander Haig's 1992 book that Nixon gained South Vietnam's acquiescence to the Paris agreements by giving a cast-iron promise to bomb the hell out of North Vietnam should they ever resume the war. Alas for Saigon, Nixon had already resigned when South Vietnam, on the eve of collapse in 1975, turned up at Haig's Nato door to have the promise redeemed. Despite Haig's entreaties, Gerald Ford, the new president in Washington, would not defy Congress and reintervene, and South Vietnam was lost. Haig concludes that Nixon would have done better to fight all-out in Vietnam, in defiance of Congress, and risk impeachment on that - a better chance of escaping than Watergate]
As for economic policy, Nixon found it boring, but twice greatly added to all our everyday travails; in 1971 in thrall to John Connally, his macho Treasury Secretary, he took the dollar off the gold standard and the effects of currency instability are with us still. So, too, are the 1973 effects of the quintupling of oil prices that wrecked Western economies. Some such action by Opec was probably inevitable; but it was not helped when Nixon unnecessarily antagonised the Saudis in the middle of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
The truth is that Nixon the statesman was distracted and hampered by Watergate almost from the moment he gained his second term. Although he was his own foreign policy strategist and decision- maker supreme, during the toils of the cover-up he increasingly left the detail to Kissinger. Without firm instructions from the president, the steering went awry. The wonder is that it was not even worse.
The vacuum of policy in '73-'74 was because Watergate was so serious - not because it was trivial, as some apologists now assert. We now know that barely three months into that second term, Nixon himself canvassed resignation. My own latest researches into Watergate have not only identified the sole existing written authorisation for the Nixon campaign bugging operation, found in the files of Bob Haldeman, chief of staff, but also illustrate Nixon's own close involvement in getting the dirt on his opponents. Only four days before the Watergate break-in, Haldeman notes Nixon asking him about a spy they had planted in the Democrats' camp: 'Did our guy give us a report?'
This is not the missing proof that Nixon ordered the break-in; but it proves that the president, far from being preoccupied with diplomacy, loved the political grubbing. And, worse, that throughout his first term he had resorted to unlawful means to do it, on the grounds that it is OK when the president does it. Watergate was not trivial.
And so it was not because of the press nor his Democrat opponents that he became the first president to resign. Sombre Republicans and southern conservatives joined the bipartisan vote to send Nixon for impeachment trial. And after the 'smoking gun' tape was made public on 5 August 1974, even his supporters deserted him. Nixon, having lied to his friends and family for two years, jumped before he was pushed - the documents now show that one consideration in his mind was his concern that an impeached president would lose his pension.
Avoiding impeachment also gave hope, however faint, of rehabilitation. Nixon and friends strove mightily for it; he wrote some interesting books, and produced penetrating policy insights. You would not know it from the tributes, but neither Reagan nor Bush would openly give him the official envoy status he craved - nor dared let him attend Republican national conventions. It has been left to clever Clinton, feeling a pinch of empathy over Whitewatergate, to do Nixon the proper presidential honours.
The writer was chief Washington correspondent of the 'Times', 1970 to 1977. His book, 'Watergate, The Corruption and Fall of Richard Nixon', is published by Cape on 5 May, pounds 16.99. A five-part series, 'Watergate', will be broadcast on BBC2 starting 8 May.
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