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Prime Requisite for Political Columnists: Thick Skin

SEVERAL critical letters, upbraiding me for being ``too soft'' in my assessment of President Clinton, remind me that it's been some time now since I've received really angry missives from readers. The reason, it seems to me, is that passions have cooled with the ending of the cold war. It's hard for people to get as roiled up over trade policy or a health plan as they did over the Soviet Union and its nuclear threat.

Richard Nixon attracted voters for many reasons, but the chief issue that brought them to his side and kept them there was his ``standing up'' to Soviet Russia and communism. They saw Mr. Nixon as a heroic figure.

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I found early that if I was in any way critical of Nixon, I would receive a bundle of ire and even hate in the mail. In essence, writers complained that by criticizing him I was showing that I was soft on communism and, therefore, a disloyal citizen.

Actually, I had always seen in Nixon a very bright fellow who, with his long years in government, including eight as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, was particularly well-prepared for the presidency. At times I wrote this. But let me express one word of criticism and those Nixon admirers would be after me. Other political reporters got similar treatment. The biggest volley was set off by the Watergate scandal. I was somewhat amused to see how these letters disappeared overnight when the ``smoking-gun'' evidence that pinned Nixon conclusively to wrongdoing was disclosed.

The cold war is over and the fear that caused such intemperate responses has disappeared with it. Monitor colleague Joseph Harsch makes a strong case as to how it came about. In his new book, ``At the Hinge of History - A Reporter's Story,'' Mr. Harsch tells us that the Soviet Union fell apart simply because it was ripe for change. ``We are at the end of [the the cold war] now,'' Harsch writes, ``but not because Ronald Reagan built more airplanes than Mikhail Gorbachev could afford.'' He adds, ``In short, Mr. Gorbachev took his country out of the power-expansion business ... because he was intelligent enough to realize that doing it was essential to the long-term welfare of his country.''

Harsch has had his share of hate mail through the years. I recall the angry thunder from his readers when he sided with Harry Truman when the president fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Harsch's assessment of that event has been vindicated by most historians.

Back to the complaints about my treatment of Mr. Clinton. I thought a gentleman from Connecticut was pretty direct when he started out: ``You are disappointing ... in your columns on Clinton.'' There have been other letters that are quite moderate in tone when compared with the vitriol that poured out from critics during the cold war period.

In foreign affairs, Clinton has shown an unsteady hand on the tiller. But on the domestic side he has done what a good president should do: come forward with programs aimed at solving the immense problems he said he would tackle. He's worked hard and creatively during these early months. From now on he will be judged on how well he is able to deliver.

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