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The Newest Nixon

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Call her Hillary Rodham Nixon, for there are times when she seems to have learned the old master's routines line by line, evasion by evasion. Remember when Tricky Dick used to say, "I want to say this about that" before saying pretty much nothing about everything, or claiming he'd explained all that before, or just changing the embarrassing subject, or all of the above?

If you've forgotten those endless Nixonian (rhymes with Clintonian) press conferences about Watergate, or are much too young to remember them, then be thankful. They're not worth remembering, any more than Hillary Clinton's current dodge, whether the question is about her disappearing emails or where she stands on the latest sensitive issue in the news like the pending free-trade agreement -- if anywhere. Welcome back, Mr. Nixon, Ms. Clinton. We haven't missed you. Or the mist left behind after you're "answered" a simple question in the vaguest way.

Oh, yes, Bill Clinton is still part of the show, too, though not formally a part of the cast this time around. He's been at pains to dismiss all those campaign contributions flowing to the Clinton Foundation, lest voters confuse him with anything but your ordinary, middle-class American millionaire. ("I gotta pay our bills.")

The other day reporters were asking Candidate Clinton about that fast-track, free-trade proposal now before Congress. "I've been very clear on this," she began, showing more than a trace of her familiar Clintonesque irritation, and then proceeding to mention various reservations, exceptions and caveats that left her response not very clear at all.

All of which figures, since as a candidate for president she aimed to please both free-trade Democrats and the party's protectionists, who want their special interests untouched. Labor unions, for prominent example. Or exporters who want to preserve their special tariffs. "I've been very clear about this," she was saying, "any trade deal that I would support must increase jobs, must increase wages, must give us more competitive economic power around the world. ... I have been for trade agreements, I have been against trade agreements." And/or both. As in this foggy case.

Richard Nixon couldn't have said it better. Or worse. There are times when the deja vu surrounding Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy is impossible to miss, like a fog that obliterates all else. You halfway expected her to mention Checkers at the end to give her reply a human or at least canine touch. But that is scarcely a fair comment. Fair to dogs, that is, for they are notoriously clear and direct creatures. Maybe because they usually don't run for public office.

Once there was a great leader from a little country put together like a jigsaw puzzle after the chaos of the First World War -- his name was Vaclav Havel, his country was called Czechoslovakia -- and he personified what he called "the power of the powerless." That was his phrase for what he came to exemplify. Playwright and president, in that order, Vaclav Havel wrote his own script, and never fudged any lines. He would go from being jailed by a Communist regime to being elected president of a free Czechoslovakia, yet remain himself. He accepted his successes, paramount among them freeing his country without bloodshed, with the same equanimity with which he accepted his failures, like its later division in two between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

How did Vaclav Havel summon the lifelong self-discipline to do all that? Maybe because he had a quality that eludes wannabe leaders who find themselves at the head of great nations: simplicity. He was a hero who disdained any air of heroism, a playwright who loathed theatrics, an intellectual who thought there was something innately suspect about the very idea of a successful intellectual, and a politician who may never have given a pompous, self-serving, evasive speech in his life. A rare bird indeed.

The manipulators in politics are always explaining how terribly complicated their decisions have to be, for politics is the art of the possible. But that's true only if the politician's idea of what is possible is sufficiently limited, his or her standards low enough, and his rationalizations slick enough to justify his decisions or lack of same. It takes no art to compromise principle, just a certain evasiveness and a lot of personal ambition.

Vaclav Havel proved politics can be the art of the impossible, or what certainly looked impossible before he attempted it. For who would have thought his little country, seized by foreign dictators of the right and left alike with equal rapacity, first Hitler and then Stalin, would succeed in breaking the Soviet Union's iron grip? Later the whole Soviet system itself would break down and fall apart. Impossible. Yet it happened. Vaclav Havel, that great dissenter, declined even to call himself a dissenter. He may have looked like one to the outside world, he would explain, but inwardly he was just doing what anyone of conscience and candor would. He had no choice if he was going to live with himself, and act with the dignity befitting a human being.

This is a time, like all others, that calls for American greatness, and instead we are offered mediocrity. No, I'm not asking for another Washington or Lincoln, or even a Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. But is some simple honesty too much to hope for?

Let's look over the presidential field for next year and see if we can spot a trace of it. We're not talking about a presidential possibility who never made a mistake, but one who can admit it. Keep the faith. There's got to be one out there. Sometimes we even convince ourselves we've just seen a glimmer of greatness. This is America, after all, the hope of the world. Or at least it used to be.

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