- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

This is a peculiar book, although admittedly it deals with a most peculiar man. As with his earlier biography of J. Edgar Hoover, Anthony Summers isn't content to let the record paint a damning portrait of his subject. Instead, he paints a portrait of a Richard Nixon so terminally creepy that the unpleasantness of 1974 looks positively benign by comparison.

"The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon" alleges that the 37th president was, in addition to his other character flaws, an occasional wife-beater and misuser of the prescription anti-epileptic drug Dilantin. Ranting to the White House walls isn't enough for the Tricky Dick of Mr. Summers' portrait; the Nixon here is a clinical paranoid from way back, who alternated his free Dilantin with Scotch, speed and Seconal, and used Mob money to finance his 1950 Senate campaign. Soviet spy and convicted perjurer Alger Hiss even emerges as the most unlikely member of Mr. Summers' martyrology.

Perhaps aware of the small library of evidence pretty effectively proving Hiss' guilt, Mr. Summers never quite comes out and says the former State Department official was innocent. Instead, he reiterates the dubious assertion that the case is still open and ominously links Nixon to disparate demons such as the Dulles brothers and J. Edgar Hoover.

It is no surprise that Mr. Summers, in his biography of Hoover, spread the quite unforgettable but quite unproved image of the FBI director dressed in a black dress. Here he supplies copious footnotes, but they often rely on third- and fourth-hand sources. Lately, in interviews he has defensively pointed out that he never asserts that Nixon beat his unfortunate wife, Pat; he merely passes on others' speculations.

Mr. Summers is by no means blindly scurrilous; he has read everything, compiled extensive footnotes, and can craft a scandal-filled narrative in a most competent manner. But he seems compulsively to need to demonize what is already deplorable. Rumor and conspiracy theory are presented without measured judgment; the result is that his biographical subjects appear as either victims of ominous conspiracies or as combinations of Captain Queeg and Hannibal Lecter. Last year's "The Contender," by Irwin Gellman, the historian, provided much that challenges this account of Nixon's political career.

In Mr. Summers' view, Nixon retainer Murray Chotiner was Screwtape (of C.S. Lewis' book, "The Screwtape Letters") to Nixon's Wormwood. Mr. Gellman, however, argued that Mr. Chotiner played a peripheral role in the 1945 House race between Nixon and Jerry Voorhis. Mr. Gellman made a case that contrary to popular myth neither Nixon's campaign nor the candidate ever accused incumbent Voorhis of communist tendencies. He also pointed out that in the 1950 Senate race, the infamous "pink sheet" comparing a rival's voting record to that of fellow-traveling Rep. Vito Marcantonio was used first by Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, and not Nixon. Mr. Gellman is mentioned twice in Mr. Summers' footnotes, where he is described as a "Nixon defender."

Reports of the Pat-slugging incidents, which allegedly took place in the wake of Nixon's disastrous 1962 gubernatorial campaign in California, turn out to be third-hand rumors of the sort that exist about most politicians. The Dilantin allegedly supplied by millionaire Jack Dreyfus Jr., who regarded it as a cure-all, is something Nixon family members and friends say Nixon used sparingly, if at all.

Another item in the Summers bill of indictment is a role Nixon did or did not play in scuttling the Paris Peace negotiations in the fall of 1968. In the scenario described in the book, Nixon used longtime anti-communist activist Anna Chenault to tell the South Vietnamese government to stand firm and resist any breakthrough in the Paris negotiations that presumably would have boosted the late-surging campaign of Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Others have noted that the South Vietnamese were quite willing to sabotage the talks temporarily, to assist in a Nixon victory.

Indeed, almost in passing, in the middle of a multi-page denunciation, Mr. Summers notes that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu "would very probably have balked at attending talks anyway, even without Republican pressure."

Of course, Nixon's most interesting career includes more than enough for any kind of biographer, friendly or malevolent, to rack up an impressive bill of indictment. Mr. Summers, an author of obvious energy, does so with great gusto. If he would only bring greater nuance to his work, the results would be impressive. But, as it stands, one can only recall Nixon's observation that in politics, two weeks is a lifetime. The same, thankfully, can often be said of political biography.

Michael Rust is a writer for Insight magazine.

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