Leading Article: A flawed man and a great constitution

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OF THE dead, decency urges, nothing but good should be said, especially perhaps on the day of their funeral. That does not mean that the death of a politician is a licence for his partisans to overpraise his policies and to belabour his opponents. Some claims now being made for Richard Nixon are so extreme that they demand cool reflection. Time magazine, for example, calls him 'the greatest figure of the post-war era'. Below such peaks of hyperbole a new orthodoxy seems to be forming. Nixon, it says, was a great President; what a pity his achievement was marred by character 'flaws'.

Richard Nixon was indeed a man of great gifts and formidable determination. As President, though, his record in domestic affairs was modest, and his achievements as an international statesman controversial. He secured an anti-ballistic missile treaty and the first strategic arms limitation agreement with the Soviet Union. But these did not initiate actual reduction in Soviet arms levels, nor usher in more tractable Soviet behaviour. The opening to China has also been oversold. More than 20 years later it has led neither to democratisation nor abolition of what remains essentially a command economy.

If Nixon's achievements have been exaggerated, the picture of a titan accidentally marred with a few 'character flaws', like soup- stains on a tie, is unconvincing. Watergate was no accident, neither was it unrelated to Nixon's foreign policy. From his earliest years in politics, Nixon played on fears that mysterious subversive forces were at work in America.

When the anti-war movement protested against his secret bombing in South-East Asia, he thought he saw the same dark forces at work. To root them out, and ensure himself victory in the 1972 election, he created a secret system of 'political intelligence' and dirty tricks. In the process, he displayed considerable contempt for the law. 'When the President does it,' he told David Frost in 1977, 'that means it is not illegal.'

When caught, he fought and, where necessary, lied. Eventually, not through the hostility of the media alone but through the courts, Congressional investigation and the impeachment process, he was forced from office. There was all but universal acknowledgement, outside Nixon's immediate circle, that he was indeed guilty of 'high crimes and misdemeanours'.

His passing is an occasion for praising, not this more than flawed man, but the American constitutional system. Confronted with the ultimate challenge of a dangerously unbalanced president, the system worked.