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That evening near 9 the phone rang. It was Nixon, alone in the Lincoln Sitting Room. Could I come over right away? Nothing could be more poignant than that at the close of his political career Nixon was left with the one associate about whom he was the most ambivalent, who made him uneasy even while counting on him to embody the continuity of his achievements.
I found Nixon slouched in the brown-covered chair, his legs on the settee, a yellow pad on his lapa last crutch. A reading lamp threw a thin beam on his chair; the rest of the room was in shadows broken only by the distant lights from the White House grounds. Often I had sensed in that room the tangible aura of concentrated power. Now all was silence and solitude.
There are several accounts of our encounter that night. Nixon has me summoned from my office for an hourlong, relatively businesslike meeting. There is also an unfeeling account of an out-of-control President beating his fist on the carpet and railing against a cruel fate. Neither fits with what I remember. The meeting lasted nearly three hours. Nixon was not calm or businesslike. Nor was he out of control. He was shattered, and he would not be worthy of further reflection had it been otherwise. I found his visible agony more natural than the almost inhuman self-containment that I had known so well. To have striven so hard, to have molded a public personality out of so amorphous an identity, to have sustained that superhuman effort only to end with every weakness disclosed and every error compounding the downfallthat was a fate of biblical proportions.
It was only natural that Nixon should spend his last solitary evening in the White House seeking to distill some positive meaning from all those years of exertion. What would history say of him? That he made a difference? Was the world a safer place? Could we go over what we had done together? He kept pouring out questions, seeking some succor in his loneliness.
In his way, in the field of foreign policy Nixon met the test of his encounter with destiny. He understood what was at stake in the world and that America's credibility must not be squandered. He fought for America's honor in distant jungles into which his predecessors had committed our troops, convinced that we had no right to abandon those who had depended on us and that tens of millions would curse the abdication his critics wished to impose on us. Against the rhetoric of a lifetime, he affirmed the impossibility of an international order that excluded China. Contrary to the simpler categories of an earlier period, he perceived that resistance to Communist aggression requires a psychological foundation that positions America as the defender of a structure of peace open even to our adversaries. He identified the need of the industrial democracies for a rededication to common purposes. He broke through the hatreds of the Middle East and showed a road toward peace. And he was beginning to educate the American people to the permanent challenge of responsible American involvement in the world.
To be sure, Nixon had failed as an educator. He had been too unsure of himself to inspire not simply by technical virtuosity but by nobility of purpose. He had not met the moral challenge.