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Last week at Yorba Linda, Calif., before an overflow crowd of 40,000 people, four men who have shaped the nation's destiny with more than 17 years in the Oval Office, assembled for the dedication of the Richard M. Nixon Library.

Conspicuously missing was former President Jimmy Carter, who was on his way back from Africa and was touring Temple Square during an hour stopover in Salt Lake City.As it turned out, Carter knew what he was doing.

Meanwhile, in California, George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford took turns praising Richard Nixon, the only president in history to resign in disgrace. In a monumental act of hypocrisy, they spoke of his contributions to peace, with but a single, brief reference to Watergate, the supreme example of presidential corruption in American history.

Johnny Carson expressed it best. He called it "Mount Rushmore seen through the wrong end of the binoculars."

Nixon has achieved the unthinkable. He has beaten history and become a respected elder statesman in spite of the most amazing odds.

All his life he lacked integrity. As a student at Duke University, he staged a break-in of the dean's office to get a copy of his grades. As a candidate for the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governorship of California, he demonstrated extraordinarily bad judgment by using dishonesty and deception to achieve his goals.

Several times his career appeared to be over.

As vice presidential candidate with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, he was correctly accused of maintaining a secret slush fund for political purposes. Using cynical ingenuity, he gave a maudlin, deceptive explanation to a national TV audience which saved his place on the ticket.

After losing the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960, he ran for governor of California in 1962 and excoriated the press after his loss, saying, "Gentlemen, this is my last press conference. You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more."

Wrong again. By 1968 he was the president of the United States. Not content with his achievement, he was determined in 1972 to choose his own opponent and win by a landslide. In doing so, he subverted the entire electoral process.

It was the beginning of the end. In a frantic effort to cover up the criminal aspects of that election, he utilized virtually every agency of government in an obstruction of justice - including Congress, the IRS, the CIA and the FBI. He embraced burglary, illegal wiretapping, money laundering, payoffs for hush money, the altering of evidence and the coaching of witnesses before investigators and a grand jury.

None of this would have become common knowledge had it not been for Nixon's fortuitous decision to secretly tape virtually every conversation that he had in the White House. When that became known during the Watergate investigation, the tapes emerged as the most important evidence to seal Nixon's fate.

The "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, recorded a conversation between Nixon and his aides only six days after the break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate apartments. Nixon pretended to know nothing about it. The conversation proved that Nixon not only knew about it, but that he had intentionally used both the CIA and the FBI to obstruct justice.

That was all the House Judiciary Committee needed to adopt three articles of impeachment - for obstruction of justice, misusing the powers of the president and failing to obey the committee's subpoenas. To avoid certain impeachment, he resigned on August 8, 1974.

A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon for any offenses he may have committed as president, but numerous Nixon lieutenants served prison terms - even though they acted at the pleasure of the president.

So now in a classic case of national Alzheimer's disease, we honor Nixon with totally undeserved accolades and resurrect his public image once more.

Who are we kidding?