Paul Greenberg

This week even Nixon's presidential library staged a comeback. There was a time when the Nixon Library at Yorba Linda, Calif., was the only presidential library in the country denied presidential papers. And rightly so. Its namesake simply couldn't be trusted with historical evidence.(Remember the 18 1/2-minute gap on the White House tapes?) The library's exhibits were laughably one-sided and nary a discouraging word about Nixon was allowed under its roof. The result: Like the man it honored, his library would be treated as a pariah.

But last Wednesday, after almost 17 years outside the official system, the Nixon Library became part of the National Archives. One of the first acts of its new director, appointed last year, was to dismantle its exhibit on Watergate, which dismissed that whole cancerous mass of scandals and worse as a conspiracy on the part of Richard Nixon's enemies.

Now the Nixon Library is less a shrine and more a real library. Some 78,000 Nixon papers - plus 11 1/2 hours of audio tape - are being made available to the public, and some of us are actually looking forward to hearing that familiar, hollow basso profundo voice again.

At long last we're all invited to pay attention to that man behind the curtain, and once again we're fascinated. Call him the Comeback Ghost this time. He's now become a star of opera ("Nixon in China"), of stage and screen ("Nixon/Frost"), the subject of a string of new books (like"Kissinger and Nixon" by Robert Dallek) and some juicy excerpts from his tapes should be on the airwaves soon. Nixon mania is back.

No wonder we're fascinated. There was always something about the man - those beady eyes and hunched shoulders, the air he had of someone always conspiring against himself - that was both compelling and repellent,unnatural and all too human. In that respect, he was almost a Shakespearean character - an Iago, a Shylock, a Richard III - capable of changing overtime as the times and generations changed. Passions faded, sympathies expanded, and the ardent cry for justice gave way to simple, quiet mercy.

Even when disgraced in fortune and men's eyes, Nixon's resilience evoked admiration, and his self-betrayal - by his own pride and paranoia and pretenses - now prompts a strange and unfamiliar feeling: compassion for a politician.

Those of us who had nothing but contempt for the man when he was being exposed as a fraud now feel stirrings of pity. Even now we may not be able to forgive and we can't forget, but a certain sorrow has supplanted the old anger.

Recognition dawns: Richard M. Nixon might actually have been a fellow human being. We begin to feel sorry for him as we might for our own wretched selves.

And surprising thoughts begin to occur. For example: In an age that celebrated intellectuals - the best and the brightest and all that -unfashionable, ungainly Richard Nixon may have been the true intellectual,willing to follow ideas right out the window (a guaranteed annual income untied to work, wage-and-price-controls, detente) or maybe on to glory (the Opening to China), while the Kennedy-Camelot circle mainly postured. Its specialty was words, words, words, while Nixon actually acted on his.

It's not just the place of Nixon in history but in historiography, the history of history, that fascinates. There is much that another presidential library, the one here in Arkansas, might learn from the repeated rises and falls of Richard Nixon and his library in the country's historical consciousness. Perhaps the most important lesson is the futility of trying to prettify the past or any president's place in it. Each generation will make its own judgments, and only candid, complete disclosure may earn respect.

Tricky Dick, Slick Willie, they had some things in common. And those things might as well be faced, uncomfortable as the parallels might make defenders of both. But if the Nixon Library could finally throw out its ridiculously partisan version of Watergate, surely the Clinton Library can rethink its impeachment exhibit, and stop depicting L'Affaire Lewinsky and all that followed from it as just a right-wing conspiracy impure and simple.

If the Clinton Library cleaned up its act, and began to offer a reasonable facsimile of the past, its historical standards might rise to those finally embraced by an institution dedicated to the memory of Richard Nixon.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.