Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Most famous Gate on Earth

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WASHINGTON -- With a bowl of Chinese noodles at a below-ground Watergate café, we mark the centennial of the late Richard Milhous Nixon, the great visionary and villain of the American Century, the Cold Warrior who pried opened the doors to Red China and -- illegally -- to Democratic Party headquarters, the only U.S. president ever to resign, but hardly the only one who should have.

It is the eve of Tricky Dick's 100th birthday when I descend for lunch to a tiny stir-fry salon called Chen's in the basement of the once-elegant, ever-notorious Watergate complex of apartments and offices (and a now-abandoned hotel) on the shores of the Potomac River.

The eponymous Chen -- reputedly Henry Kissinger's favourite Chinese chef -- no longer runs the restaurant, having passed it 20 years ago to a Korean immigrant named Young Bae who, when I ask if he remembers Richard Nixon, laughs and says, "He was a good leader. He was going to win the election anyway -- why did he need to get involved with Watergate?"

"Watergate gave its name to everything," says Florence Min, the genial, Malaysian-born, ethnic-Chinese hostess and server at Chen's. "Now everything bad is 'something-gate.' When students and tourists come here from China, they are all excited.

"But Americans, they don't remember," Young Bae interjects. "They don't know Watergate anymore. They don't even know Nixon!"

This is actuarial: 51 per cent of Americans were born after the 37th president flipped us his famous final, venal Vs-for-victory, boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn, and flew off to retirement and disgrace.

But for those of us who came of age during his tenure on the stage, and for many Old China Hands, Nixon remains both as hallowed and as hated as few other men ever have been, and the question of whether his achievements should outweigh his arrogance is one that we will argue until we die.

Tricky Dick himself expired in 1994.

"You have to look at both sides of Nixon!" a diner at Chen's eagerly chirps when I bring up the centennial. (The great day also is being marked here by a reunion dinner featuring a eulogy by Dr. Kissinger, and by an exhibition of Nixonia at the National Archives.)

The chirping diner is an Ethiopian-born cabbie named Sahle Zewdinhe who was a student at Washington's Howard University in 1973, when a panel of preening, pouting senators grilled Nixon's aides about the depth of his anti-Democrat depravity and discovered that he had audio-taped the whole sad thing.

"That was a lesson in democracy," Zewdinhe recalls. "That was part of my education about this country. That even a president had to face justice."

Delivered to a waiting universe on Jan. 9, 1913, Richard Nixon was the first (and still the only) native Californian to reach the summit of power on the opposite coast, and the only man since the 1880s to lose a presidential election and then come back to win on his next try.

While in office, he ended the Vietnam War, signed a missile-reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, established the Environmental Protection Agency and fostered the Endangered Species Act, shook hands with the senescent Mao Zedong and made the first telephone call to humans on the moon.

Yet Nixon also gave the nation such catch-phrases as "expletive deleted" and "I am not a crook" and told his staff, as the country wallowed in Watergate, "I don't give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else, if it'll save it, save this plan. That's the whole point. We're going to protect our people if we can."

"His views about blacks, his views about Jews, his obstruction of justice, we must remember those things, too," Sahle Zewdinhe says.

Such furor, just because the president of the United States tape-recorded himself in the Oval Office in conversation with senior aides while musing that "every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana are Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?"

Now, on Centennial Eve, down the steps to Chen's Watergate descends Richard Siegel, formerly a lawyer in the office of a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania named Schweiker -- he was a liberal Republican, an endangered species now extinct -- who had the distinction of earning a berth on Richard Nixon's "Enemies List." (Siegel later served as deputy assistant secretary of agriculture in the Reagan administration.)

"I admired his resilience, his ability to keep coming back," Siegel says of Nixon as he picks up an order of tofu-to-go. "He was not doctrinaire. He believed in big government, but in effective government. Still, I can't accept the things he said about Jews."

(To wit, from another Oval Office tape recording: "Jews are an irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards.")

"A lot of them did the same thing and didn't get caught, but I'm glad he did get caught," Siegel says. "It gave us better journalism, and it gave us better government."

And it gave us Watergate, where Siegel still practices law in a semi-circular tower where the law so brazenly was broken, and where your shrimp and noodles come with a side order of infamy.

"Watergate!" the lawyer sighs, looking up at the skyline. "This is the most famous office building in the world!"

From behind the counter, Young Bae snaps, "Fame gone."

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 J1

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