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Richard M. Nixon

AS the nation sorts through its feelings on hearing of former President Richard Nixon's passing on Friday evening, a useful starting point might be the grace and largeness of spirit typified by the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D) of Minnesota, long a Nixon political opponent.

The ailing Humphrey phoned Nixon and his wife on Christmas Day in 1977, largely to say farewell. Sensing Nixon's profound isolation after having resigned in disgrace over Watergate, he called again the next day and offered a ``gift.'' Humphrey asked that Nixon attend his memorial service in Washington and stand at a place of honor accorded to former presidents. And if anyone asked about Nixon's presence, the reply was simply: Nixon is here at Humphrey's personal request.

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Students of politics will find in Nixon a tough survivor, who seemed to rebound from more low points than any politician in modern US history. Nearly knocked off Dwight Eisenhower's ticket during the 1952 campaign, defeated for president in 1960, defeated for governor of California in 1965, he still captured the nation's highest office in 1968. He and his advisers set the stage for highly managed use of TV during campaigns. Yet with each defeat, the list of political enemies and political insecurities grew to a point that even in the face of a landslide victory in 1972, his operatives felt impelled to break into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex. His role in obstructing the investigation into the break-in cost him the presidency. Yet Watergate and its aftermath demonstrated the resiliency of the same Constitution his actions abused. As if to solidify his survivor image, in the past 20 years he grew to assume a role of foreign-policy strategist and informal presidential adviser, in some ways a mirror image to former President Carter's hands-on attempts to resolve international disputes.

Students of foreign policy will find his opening to China, establishment of detente with the Soviet Union, and closeout of US involvement in Vietnam fertile ground.

Likewise, students of domestic policy will find that despite his reputation as a conservative, he was the only president to impose peacetime wage and price controls. He also offered a welfare-reform package that finds strong echoes in proposals on Capitol Hill today and signed landmark environmental legislation. That these actions were driven less by ideology than political instinct does not diminish their importance.

Humphrey's grace and largeness of spirit were blind neither to constitutional implications and catharsis of Watergate, nor to Nixon's accomplishments. They did, however, express the humility to leave ``definitive'' judgments of Nixon's complex record to the ongoing scrutiny of historians.

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