- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007


By Margaret MacMillan

Random House, $27.95, 404 pages


On his last trip to China in 1993, Margaret MacMillan tells us, Richard Nixon observed, “I will be known historically for

two things. Watergate and the opening to China… . I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but Watergate, that silly, silly thing is going to rank up there historically with what I did here.”

And so it has, as an aging generation of journalists and historians with axes to grind publish excerpts from the tapes, reinforcing those stock caricatures of Richard Nixon. Those tapes, said Bob Woodward, are a gift that keeps giving. They are. And what they give, primarily, is another chance for Nixon’s critics to kick him around, while ignoring or downplaying his considerable accomplishments.

However, in among this spate of stereotyped Nixon studies, works are surfacing by a new generation of authors like Ms. MacMillan, both an accomplished historian (“Paris 1919”) and a superb writer, free from those archetypical preconceptions. (It may also help that Ms. MacMillan is Canadian, uninfected by some of our more virulent ideological biases.)

Ms. MacMillan speaks to the problem. “Even historians who disapprove of psychohistory,” she writes, “find themselves tempted irresistibly when it comes to Richard Nixon.” Critics, she says, attacking his rhetoric of peace, speak of “Nixon’s cynical attempt to conceal his own moral vacuum.” But, says Ms. MacMiIllan, “That is wrong. Nixon did many immoral things in his life, but he longed to be good. In notes he wrote endlessly to himself on his favorite yellow legal pads, he exhorted himself to provide moral leadership, to be the national conscience of his country.” (As Bill Gavin, one of Nixon’s first and best writers put it, “He was a better man than he thought he was.”)

With quick strokes, Ms. MacMillan touches on Nixon’s strengths and weaknesses, as she does with Mao Tse-tung, Henry Kissinger and Chou En-lai, the lead players in the high drama of the first visit by an American president to China. That visit, beginning on Feb. 21 and ending on Feb. 28, 1972, frames Ms. MacMillan’s book.

The emphasis throughout is on the interactions among the four principals, with mini-histories, biographies and flashbacks sandwiched between meetings, machinations and events of the week. Ms. MacMillan writes with wit, grace and precision, covering an extraordinary amount of material in tightly packed pages.

Her set pieces are superb — the banquet at the Great Hall of the People, for instance, where the People’s Liberation Army band played “Turkey in the Straw” and “Oh! Susanna” and a flushed Nixon toasted Communist functionaries individually, apparently fueled by a particularly potent variety of Chinese white lightning — a performance that caused Bill Buckley to write a brilliantly scathing critque of Nixon’s behavior.

Nor does Ms. MacMillian neglect the quirks — Nixon’s inability to make small talk, for instance. At the Shanghai Industrial Exhibition, Nixon observed: “‘Machinery could be dangerous … Sometimes when you push the button it does not turn out all right … Nixon looked up at the giant portraits of Communist luminaries. ‘We don’t see many pictures of Engels in America,’ he said.” Occasionally, it’s too much — tired and cranky, being entertained by the courtly Chou (Nixon always treats Chou with great courtesy), who calls his attention to pictures of Chinese life. “Nixon tried to ignore him, but was eventually forced to look. His smile grew strained, then disappeared. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ he snapped.”

Interestingly, although he found Jiang Qing, the dreaded wife of Mao, “unpleasantly abrasive and aggressive,” he apparently thoroughly enjoyed “The Red Detachment of Women,” the opera she made him sit through. (Staff speculation was that the screaming relieved him of the need to make small talk.)

In Shanghai, at the end of the extraordinary trip, Nixon made a final toast. “We have been here a week,” he said. “This was the week that changed the world.”

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