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Nixon, Elder Statesman

Ex-president talks about his career and the state of the world. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

RICHARD NIXON REFLECTS: AN `AMERICAN INTERESTS' SPECIAL PBS, tomorrow, 9-10:30 p.m. (check local listing). Host-interviewer: Morton Kondracke. `THE Machiavelli of Whittier, Calif.,'' as satirist Gore Vidal dubbed Richard Nixon in a 1983 essay, ``often says what he means when he means to say something quite different ..., and that is why we cannot stop listening to him....

``In Nixon we are able to observe our faults larger than life. But we can also, if we try, see in this huge, dusty mirror our virtues as well.''

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Without ignoring the single most conspicuous fault in the former president's career - his 1974 resignation in the face of certain impeachment - this TV interview seeks to examine the full four decades which the former congressman, vice-president, and president devoted to national life. From his handling of the Alger Hiss case at age 35, through his eight years as VP under Eisenhower, his unsuccessful and successful runs for the presidency, and his two administrations, Nixon's contributions and failings are revisited.

In Nixon's first extended television interview since those with David Frost in 1977 and ``60 Minutes'' in 1984, ``Richard Nixon Reflects'' also explores the former president's thoughts about the communist world past, present, and future; domestic politics from Eisenhower to Bush; enemies; the media; and Watergate.

Commenting that the Watergate wire-tap was far from unusual, and that George McGovern had no chance of winning the election, Nixon adds: ``I should've knocked it off right there [at the beginning] and said, `Let's find out who did this [the break-in] and let him walk the plank.''' Eighteen years later, he maintains he still doesn't know who authorized the burglary.

Footage filmed at Nixon's private residence and some taken from the Nixon archive complement the discussion, skillfully conducted by ``American Interests'' series host Morton Kondracke.

The series represents the second in a three-tiered barrage of events bringing Nixon before the public this spring and summer. The first was the April publication of his latest book, ``In the Arena; A Memoir of Victory, Defeat and Renewal.'' The next will be the opening of the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., in July.

In contrast to the bumbling ``I can't remember'' comments of former president Reagan in videotaped testimony for the recent John Poindexter trial, these interviews reveal a man with astute recall and analytical prowess. They also reveal a person more at peace with himself than in previous appearances before the camera.

Nixon attributes President Bush's popularity to a ``mistake-free administration'' and ``a very weak Democratic opposition ..., the weakest in 50 years.'' He predicts the only way the Democrats could retake the White House is if a serious economic downturn occurs before 1992, and he says the Democrat best positioned to capitalize on bad economic news is New York Governor Mario Cuomo.

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``...Cuomo would be able to seize on the haves vs. the have-nots issue more effectively ... because of his appeal. ... Cuomo has high intelligence. He has heart. ... He is very good insofar as Q&A and speaking is concerned. Debates between him and George Bush ... would be very interesting to watch.''

Nixon sees today's Democratic leadership as ``simply unable to seize on any issue. ... You're not going to get the whole country excited about global warming.''

Having served as Eisenhower's primary political operative during campaigns of the '50s, Nixon is asked how Dan Quayle measures up.

``I think Dan Quayle has done extremely well, considering what he was up against. ... The expectations are so low that all he's got to do is go out and show he can handle himself.'' According to Nixon, ``...You should not count [Quayle] out. He has a ways to go, because he started from a very low level, but don't count him out.''

Nixon responds to a number questions about political initiatives, including d'etente - the Nixon-inspired policy of reducing tension between the superpowers, brought to an end by Reagan. He says the policy was appropriate for 1969 but not for 1980.

``It was the right time to take a strong stand against the Soviet Union,'' says Nixon of Reagan's hardline policies. The US was in a malaise during the late 1970s, and had fallen behind the Soviets militarily. Nixon says Reagan was correct in choosing to shore up American morale and defenses before negotiating with the Soviets. ``You can't have a detente strategy unless you're in a position of equality.

Nixon also claims that, while the ``basket-case'' Soviet economy played the major role in Gorbachev's reforms, Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) also had an enormous effect. ``It's rather fashionable in the circles you and I move in,'' he says to Kondracke, ``to say, `Well, SDI didn't really amount to much.' [But] SDI has an enormous effect on Gorbachev.''

He recounts a 1986 visit with the Soviet leader, when the two discussed SDI and Gorbachev's fears of escalating the arms race. According to Nixon, ``Deep down, what [Gorbachev] was concerned about was not that militarily they couldn't do it, because they are very good at doing that sort of thing. But his concern was that he felt that it would bust the Soviet economy and that they couldn't afford it. So SDI played a role in his economic reforms.''

Among the former president's other comments is one on the extramarital activities of John Kennedy and the press: ``In 1960, it is unlikely that the media would have played the role that they did in the Gary Hart case. I'm inclined to think that the media would have discounted it. ... [Today] the press is almost exclusively interested in scandal. You can have a big piece on the homeless, and it won't even make the evening news if you've got somebody sleeping with somebody else's wife.''

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