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One gets the feeling that Oliver Stone would have had a ball had he served on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1974. Now, there's some heavy-duty muck to rake, indeed. If this mercurial filmmaker had his JFK way with the scandal, America might have learned what the president knew, when he knew it, and what he had for a snack afterward.

Such is the reputation of the director some critics and conservatives love to berate. They assumed Stone would take liberal liberties with a biography of Richard M. Nixon. After all, this is the guy who made it look like everyone except the butler had a hand in John Kennedy's assassination, de-patriotized our Vietnam involvement in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, and turned two psycho killers into media darlings in Natural Born Killers.

It is surprising, however, to learn that Nixon doesn't kick dirt on the former president's grave. The film is a thoughtful, mature biography with credible guesses of why a man in Nixon's position became so bitter and power-mad. Above all, the film elicits a feeling for Nixon that few expected from Stone: empathy.

"I was not a Nixon hater, as many people think," Stone said. "I had very mainstream feelings about Nixon; very glad when he got kicked out, but I supported him in 1968 because I thought he would end the war.

"Mr. Nixon was an interesting contradiction of idealism and corruption. That combination is fascinating. The very tools that allowed him to succeed were the tools that destroyed him. You require anger and Machiavellian tactics to come from where he did and rise to the top."

Nixon clearly portrays the former president's childhood as an unhappy influence on the rest of his life. Two beloved brothers die of tuberculosis. His father is stern and unforgiving, and his mother is a devout Quaker wife whose orthodox ways instilled self-doubt in her youngest son. Stone believes these factors combined to create a political creature of bad habit.

"Americans love the arena, and he loved the concept of being a warrior in that arena," Stone said. "There was something very self-destructive about Nixon that came from that. Every time he had success, he took no pleasure from it. And he found a way to challenge himself again by destroying himself and re-creating himself."

Nixon does include pointed references to the president's ungracious acceptance of lost elections, his escalation of the Vietnam conflict and the resulting anti-war sentiments that lead to the Kent State shootings. And, of course, there are the frantic attempts to whitewash Nixon's attempted cover-up of White House-approved "dirty tricks," especially the burglary of Democratic Party headquarters at the Washington D.C. hotel that gave the Watergate scandal its name.

"Politically, we're tough on him," Stone acknowledged. "But we let him off the hook on few things, too."

Off one hook, perhaps, then pinned to another by Stone's hypothesis that Nixon may have had more information about the Kennedy assassination than most Americans ever dreamed. Several references are made in the film to the "Bay of Pigs," which former White House aide H.R. Haldeman claimed was a codeword for the presidential murder. The implication in Nixon is this "Bay of Pigs" is the topic erased by the infamous 18{-minute gap in a key Oval Office conversation taped by the president.

"Most of the mentions of the Bay of Pigs are around (the erasures)," Stone said. "The subject comes up several times on that tape, and it's a very cryptic reference that obviously has a meaning for Nixon that's disturbing.

"What does Bay of Pigs mean? It's the Rosebud of the movie; you'll never know, unless there was another tape."

Expect this alleged JFK connection to be ground zero in any fallout from critical pundits leaving no Stone movie unturned. For example, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas (who briefly appears at the climax of Nixon) made quite a bit of political hay railing against the relentless violence of Natural Born Killers.

"You never please everybody," Stone said, smiling at his own understatement. "You must be willing to offend people, or else you're not going to make movies that are interesting."

Stone contemplated Dole's voter-friendly furor over Natural Born Killers for a moment. Then, as in his new movie, the filmmaker adopted a more diplomatic approach than anyone might expect:

"I know Bob Dole thinks I made a lousy action movie last year. I hope he likes Nixon more."