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Richard Nixon's comebacks

Much has been written recently about the resiliency of Richard Nixon, who was pretty much counted out as a political force a decade ago. Reporters who followed Mr. Nixon's career over the years had seen him bounce back several times before. So there was a Nixon history that should have indicated that he just might rise out of the disgrace inflicted on him by Watergate - or, more accurately, by the ignominy he inflicted on himself.

In the early aftermath of his close defeat by John Kennedy in 1960, Nixon was already fighting back. After a vacation in Florida, he quickly mounted a fund-raising trip to pay back some campaign debts.

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In following Nixon on some of this journey, reporters found him showing little anguish. He was a bit subdued. He was no longer attracting the big crowds , and only a few reporters were still covering him.

But to those reporters still watching him closely, Nixon appeared relaxed, even relieved. If he were disheartened, he was not letting it show. In Detroit he was host at a little party in his hotel suite for five or six members of the press. He donned an apron and, as jovially as a rather stiff Nixon could ever be in entertaining socially, actually served his guests. He was already talking about future Nixon campaigns. He was clearly on his way back.

Soon Nixon had plunged into the California race for governor. Once again he met with defeat. This was a particularly bitter setback for a man whose career had taken him to two terms in the vice-presidency and a presidential candidacy. Who will forget his ''parting'' words to the press when he told them they would no longer have Nixon to ''kick around.'' It was headlined as his swan song in politics.

Mr. Nixon moved to New York, where, soon thereafter, this writer was seeing him on occasion. It was clear from the start of this relationship that Nixon was harboring plans for a comeback. Very soon a ''new Nixon,'' as many reporters were saying, was heading toward another try at the presidency.

Nixon is a terribly complicated individual. It may take hundreds of years for history to sort him out completely. Watergate may always relegate him among the presidents of the lower rank. But as even some liberal critics now concede, Nixon's dealings with Peking and Moscow may, of themselves, lift his status in history.

After his loss to Mr. Kennedy, Nixon was able to talk quite dispassionately about the reasons for his defeat. In fact, he would often speak of himself as if he were discussing someone else. Nixon said at the time that it was the debates that cost him the election.

He conceded that his appearance in the first debate, pale from a recent illness, had helped Kennedy - had caused his opponent to look more vital and hence more attractive. But he insisted that the chief reason he had lost the debates was that, as he put it, ''I was a rigid target - Kennedy was a moving target, much harder to hit.'' By this he meant that he was running on the Eisenhower-Nixon record, one that had already been put into cement - whereas Kennedy was tied to nothing that could keep him from moving about and finding issues and positions that would make him effective in debate.

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After Watergate, most observers seemed to think that Nixon would crawl into a hole. For a little while it looked as if that might happen. But soon, through interviews and books, it was clear he was seeking a comeback from what appeared to be political oblivion.

I talked with Mr. Nixon at length in San Clemente, shortly after the David Frost interviews. It was surprising to find that the old, pre-Watergate Nixon, at least on the surface, was back. He was talking like one who aspired to be an elder statesman. First he would discuss domestic policy, then foreign policy, then the leaders of the world. He talked as if he thought his judgments mattered. And he has continued to talk that way.

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