In the final months of his life, Richard Nixon quietly advised President Bill Clinton on navigating the post-Cold War world, even offering to serve as a conduit for messages to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other government officials, newly declassified documents show.
Memos and other records show Nixon’s behind-the-scenes relations with the Clinton White House. The documents are part of an exhibit opening Friday at the Nixon Presidential Library, marking the centennial of his birth.
Clinton has talked often of his gratitude to Nixon for his advice on foreign affairs, particularly Russia. In a video that will be part of the exhibit, Clinton recalls receiving a letter from the 37th president shortly before his death on April 22, 1994, at a time when Clinton was assessing U.S. relations “in a world growing ever more interdependent and yet ungovernable.”
“I sought guidance in the example of President Nixon, who came to the presidency at a time in our history when Americans were tempted to say, ‘We’ve had enough of the world,'” Clinton says in the video. “But President Nixon knew we had to continue to reach out to old friends and to old enemies alike. He knew America could not quit the world.”
The documents from late February and early March 1994 show Nixon, then 81, in his role of elder statesman. It was two decades after he left the White House in disgrace during Watergate.
The exhibit is an attempt to present a fuller picture of Nixon. It includes the wooden bench he often warmed as a second-rate football player in college, and illustrates events often eclipsed by the scandal that drove him from office.
Media reports from the time discussed interaction between Nixon and Clinton before his trip, including a phone call. The records, provided to The Associated Press by the library, fill in the backstory, detailing Nixon’s advice as well as his willingness to assist U.S. interests abroad.
They include a confidential National Security Council memo from a senior Clinton aide who spent three hours with Nixon, shortly before the former president would make his 10th, and final, trip to Russia that year.
The aide, R. Nicholas Burns, writes that Nixon is generally supportive of White House policy on Russia but thinks the administration has not been tough enough when it comes to Russia’s dealings with its neighbors. Nixon also advises that U.S. aid to Russia should be linked to U.S. security aims, such as nuclear balance and a reduced threat from the Russian military, rather than emphasizing the value of domestic reforms there.
Nixon also offered to carry messages to Yeltsin and others as his own, the memo says.
The documents, released through Clinton’s presidential library for the exhibit, also include talking points Clinton apparently used in his call with Nixon.
Nixon’s trip to Russia was followed closely in the media, in part because Yeltsin froze the former president out of the Kremlin and took away bodyguards and a limousine the government had provided for him after Nixon held meetings with Yeltsin adversaries.
Yeltsin later backed off and urged Russian officials and parliament members to meet with Nixon.
In another glimpse into their relationship, a handwritten note will be on display from Nixon to Clinton that praises the former Arkansas governor’s 1992 presidential campaign that helped put him in the White House. Nixon said the campaign was one of the best he had ever witnessed.
“The strongest steel must pass through the hottest fire. In enduring that ordeal you have demonstrated that you have the character to lead not just America but the forces of peace and freedom in the world,” Nixon wrote.
Clinton in his younger days was no fan of Nixon — as a college student in the 1960s, he opposed escalation of the Vietnam War. And his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a young lawyer advising a House committee when she helped draw up impeachment papers against Nixon.
But Clinton’s views changed. He led the nation in paying tribute to Nixon at his funeral in California in April 1994, declaring, “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”
He later told interviewer Larry King that he was deeply grateful for Nixon’s counsel since he took office and wished he could call the former president for advice.
Clinton echoed that statement in the video tribute.
“After he died, I found myself wishing I could pick up the phone and ask President Nixon what he thought about this issue or that problem, particularly if it involved Russia. I appreciated his insight and advice and I’m glad he chose, at the end of his life, to share it with me,” Clinton says.
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