July 2, 2015
NY Times Sunday Book Review
In May, to start the final broadcast of David Letterman’s late-night show, a dimly familiar yellow-tinged 1970s video began to play. “My fellow Americans,” Gerald Ford intoned, “our long national nightmare is over.” In specially recorded messages, Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama then recited the famous line, which Ford had first spoken just after the disgraced Richard Nixon left the White House, the only president ever to resign. No one in the Letterman bit mentioned Nixon’s name, but his specter — as it so often does in our political culture — hovered over the whole thing.
Hard though it may be to recall, for a time during the 1990s Richard Nixon seemed bound for rehabilitation. He had spent his last years romancing the pundit class, fashioning an image as a sage. Historians, digging into his administration’s domestic record, developed a man-bites-dog story line that pronounced him a Great Society liberal. And as the flood of Watergate memoirs dried up, kooky conspiracy theories flourished, some exonerating Tricky Dick from a key part in the 1972 burglary and cover-up that brought him down.
Now we’ve come full circle. The release of White House tapes and documents since Nixon’s death in 1994 has rendered the pro-Nixon historiography of yesteryear a musty artifact. Washington pseudoscandals have come and gone, clarifying anew how breathtaking Watergate was. And this summer brings two major new Nixon books — Tim Weiner’s “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon” and Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” — neither of which offers much that’s novel but which together reaffirm the old (and new) consensus. These well-researched efforts remind us, fundamentally, that Nixon himself led the criminal conspiracy at the heart of his presidency, the revelation of which forever tarnished the White House in the public mind.
Both authors are highly accomplished journalists. Weiner, a former New York Times national security reporter, is decidedly hostile to Nixon, structuring his account of the presidency around a litany of transgressions related to Watergate and the Vietnam War. Thomas, a prolific author and veteran Newsweek editor, aims for a more fully rounded portrait, carefully pairing each indictment of Nixon with a mitigating perspective or flattering counterexample. Weiner makes more fruitful use of primary sources, while Thomas has a surer command of the secondary literature. Whether you prefer the edgier Weiner or the judicious Thomas may depend on whether you like your political history fizzy or still, spicy or mild, extra crispy or original recipe.
Dozens of splendid works on Nixon already exist, of course. My short list would include Garry Wills’s “Nixon Agonistes,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “The Final Days” and Stanley I. Kutler’s “The Wars of Watergate” (all still in print). Yet there remains no authoritative cradle-to-grave biography. Stephen E. Ambrose banged out a solid, breezily written trilogy, but his wanton acts of plagiarism and the posthumous revelation that he fabricated interviews with Dwight Eisenhower have rendered his work unusable. Tom Wicker and Herbert S. Parmet each tried to fill the Nixon biography void, but they produced gargantuan tomes without touching key parts of his presidency. Roger Morris wrote a magisterial, if slightly conspiratorial, first installment of a planned multivolume work, but its thousand-plus pages reached only to the end of 1952. The other volumes never appeared.
Thomas’s “Being Nixon” aspires to be the go-to one-volume life. The author guides us from Nixon’s boyhood and eventful early career through the war-making, peace-making and policy-making of his presidency, to his post-resignation comeback bid. But it’s no knock on Thomas’s storytelling powers to conclude, on finishing his study, that a satisfying one-volume biography probably just can’t be written. The sheer yardage that one has to traverse simply defies easy narration.
Thomas has a fine eye for the telling quote and the funny vignette, and his style is eminently readable. But for much of the book he pin balls from one topic to the next. A quick take on school desegregation dissolves into a riff on Nixon’s taste in movies and then it’s off to Cambodia. The insistence on tackling so much material also precludes the sort of fine-grained analysis — whether of politics or policy or personality — that a porterhouse steak of a biography like this implicitly promises.
Fathoming the murky psychological depths of our most tortured president also presents a challenge. To his credit, Thomas treats Nixon as a human being, not a cartoon. Always on the lookout for the good deed or the sympathetic angle, he stresses not the familiar hatreds and well-known vindictiveness but Nixon’s shyness, his devotion to family, his sentimentality: “Being Nixon” opens with a meditation on Nixon’s love of the movie “Around the World in 80 Days,” and he is later shown listening happily to recordings of “Carousel” and “The King and I.
Empathy is admirable and even necessary in a historian, but Thomas’s fulsome charity obscures the rage, paranoia and chilling amorality that propelled Nixon to the peak of power and brought on the Watergate nightmare. In some places Thomas relies uncritically on dubious sources, like a 1993 Nixon hagiography by the conservative British politician Jonathan Aitken. At other times, his evenhandedness yields misleading understatement and ludicrous litotes. “Nixon was not completely free of prejudice,” he writes of this racist, anti-Semitic churl. “Favoring hush money over full disclosure was a moral lapse,” another sentence begins. He starts the book’s last paragraph, “Nixon was no saint,” before ending with the claim that Nixon tried “to dare to be brave, to see, often though sadly not always, the light in the dark.”
This peroration is unpersuasive, not least because Thomas himself showcases so many scenes of Nixon rolling up his sleeves to break the law. “Being Nixon” doesn’t neglect the notorious train of abuses — from Henry Kissinger’s illegal wiretaps to the “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of the Watergate special prosecutor — that amounted to the worst constitutional crisis of the century. On the contrary, Thomas’s account gets exciting precisely when it hits Watergate and the obligatory discussions of wage and price controls and the office of consumer affairs recede. His gentle judgments thus ring false.
If “Being Nixon” struggles to encompass Nixon’s whole life, “One Man Against the World” zeros in on the Vietnam War and Watergate, with other Cold War dramas — China, détente, Chile, the Yom Kippur War — also getting attention. This focused approach avoids the pitfalls of sprawl. Weiner’s barrage of information, however, devolves into a charmless inventory. Intent on reeling off facts, he provides little scene setting, few character sketches and a dearth of political or historical context. And where Thomas suffers from a surfeit of empathy, Weiner displays too little.
Weiner’s staccato typewriter prose, with its one-sentence paragraphs and bullet judgments, also contrasts with Thomas’s inoffensive, glossy lyricism. On whether Nixon should be considered a liberal, for example, Thomas writes (correctly, in my view): “He was not, but he was a crafty activist who loved to outflank and confound his foes.” He then dilates dutifully on such topics as the environment and welfare reform. Nixon’s onetime assistant budget chief, James Schlesinger, is quoted saying that the president even reviewed the details of fiscal policy.
Weiner, on the other hand, states emphatically that Nixon “cared little about domestic affairs: least of all housing, health, education, welfare and civil rights” — all true enough — and his narrative skirts those issues almost entirely. Yet he goes on to assert that “getting rid of things was the heart of Nixon’s domestic policy — especially tearing down the structures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” I know of no historians today who would endorse that claim. Nixon did in fact preside over a welter of new liberal programs, but mainly because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, public opinion was demanding activist government and the president had bigger priorities than fighting those battles.
Differences also arise in the two biographers’ takes on the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, which Nixon mounted to stop the North Vietnamese forces from hiding across the border. Weiner emphasizes the president’s deceit in concealing the operation from the American people and in having the military issue false reports about it. And he concludes ominously, in the last sentence of one chapter, “The bombing of a neutral nation arguably violated the laws of war.”
Widening the war into Cambodia fueled tensions at home, and the concealment of the operation typified Nixon’s furtive diplomatic style. But it’s noteworthy that Congress dropped the Cambodia incursion from the charges of impeachment it drafted in 1974, and Weiner is compelled to include the deflating adverb “arguably” for a reason. As Thomas explains in his more balanced account, “The North Vietnamese controlled Cambodia’s bordering territory,” and “‘hot pursuit’ into neutral territory is an old military doctrine.”
Weiner’s book is valuable insofar as it adds details to confirm what we knew about Nixon’s desperate Vietnam gambits and his central role in directing the Watergate cover-up. For example, he unearths an incriminating May 1973 tape of Nixon talking to his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, about memos from the previous summer that had been delivered by Vernon Walters of the C.I.A.; those documents described the president’s illegal effort to have the agency shut down the F.B.I.’s burgeoning probe of the Watergate break-in on the bogus grounds that it would compromise national security. “It will be very embarrassing,” Nixon says of releasing Walters’s notes. “It’ll indicate that we tried to cover up with the C.I.A.”
Weiner has clearly logged time in primary sources — C.I.A. files, Nixon’s tapes, oral histories, the State Department documents collected in “Foreign Relations of the United States” — and he serves up delightful nuggets of information. He discovers, for instance, that Nixon included a sentence in his first inauguration speech, “Our lines of communication will be open,” at the suggestion of the Soviet intelligence operative Boris Sedov, as a signal to Moscow. Unfortunately, Weiner exaggerates the import of this diplomatic wink, calling it “the K.G.B.’s proposal to ghostwrite a passage of the inaugural address.” Here and elsewhere, hyperbole undercuts his reliability.
Throughout the book, and in his public appearances promoting it, Weiner inflates his own contributions, sometimes leaving the impression that he first uncovered the information he cites. In truth, this volume adds less to our knowledge than two other recent books: Ken Hughes’s “Chasing Shadows,” about Nixon’s efforts during the 1968 election to keep the South Vietnamese from agreeing to Lyndon Johnson’s peace proposals, and John W. Dean’s “The Nixon Defense,” which uses hundreds of original tape transcriptions to illuminate the purpose of the 1972 Watergate break-in and the depth of Nixon’s knowledge of his aides’ obstruction of justice.
In 1994, during the height of the revisionism, one pro-Nixon scholar crowed that as time went on, Nixon would come to be known first for his social programs, next for his diplomacy and only incidentally for the orgy of lawlessness that had otherwise defined his reputation. Among the other verdicts that these two notable books offer — for all their sundry virtues and forgivable flaws — is the unmistakable conclusion that those revisionists were completely wrong.
ONE MAN AGAINST THE WORLD
The Tragedy of Richard Nixon
by Tim Weiner
369 pp. Henry Holt & Company.
A Man Divided
by Evan Thomas
Illustrated. 619 pp. Random House. $35.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” and the forthcoming “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”