- - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

By Will Swift
Threshold Editions, $30, 479 pages

Will Swift’s deeply researched “Pat and Dick,” following closely on the heels of Jeffrey Frank’s “Ike and Dick,” suggests there may be a new breeze blowing from often unexpected directions.

It’s not news that books are still being written about Richard Nixon, one of the most complex and inherently interesting of our presidents. However, it may be that because of increasingly inept and incoherent policy formulation in Washington, there’s a new interest in his success in building what he called “a lasting structure of peace,” a structure that has shaped foreign policy for half a century, but now stands badly in need of repair.

The last half of the 20th century, as Mr. Swift points out, has been called “the Age of Nixon” and today, “What would Richard Nixon do?” is not a rhetorical question.

These new books are also balanced, treating matters like Watergate seriously, but also giving Nixon and his considerable achievements the credit they deserve. Some of it may be a result of the thinning of the ranks of what Pat Buchanan calls “the old jackal pack,” a predominantly liberal press that had been snapping at Nixon’s heels since he unmasked the model of eastern New Deal elitism, Alger Hiss, as a traitor in service to Josef Stalin, thereby, as Mr. Swift puts it, earning him “the eternal enmity of liberals.”

Mr. Swift, a historian and psychologist who writes strong, clear prose, has no apparent ideological or political axes to grind. However, he doesn’t hesitate to blow the whistle when he sees political piling-on.

His story begins in Southern California, where a brilliant, newly minted young lawyer writes to a vivacious and self-sufficient young lady to ask her to share his ambitions: “It is our job to go forth together and accomplish great ends, and we shall do it, too.”

From their wedding day in June 1940, they were partners in the pursuit of “great ends.” There were victories and losses, always shared. He very nearly decided to back out of the Checkers speech, but she stiffened his spine. She was with him through the loss to Kennedy, convinced the election was stolen in Illinois — it most likely was, in Illinois and Texas — and through the California gubernatorial fiasco.

There was the White House, finally, and the historic trip to China, which helped end the war in Vietnam, led to a new relationship with Moscow and a recalibration, in our favor, of the global balance of power. Mr. Swift brings the visit vividly alive, with descriptions of Pat Nixon’s contributions to its total success, not the least of which was so charming Chou En-lai that he made her a gift of two pandas.

There were other successes, especially the trips abroad, where to the end Richard Nixon was received as a master statesman. At home, Pat Nixon maintained a high level of popularity. Despite the hearings and the resignation, “she was Good Housekeeping’s most admired woman … for 1974 and 1975.”

In retrospect, “Pat’s deepest regret about Watergate was that way back in 1971, Dick had not asked her about his plan to tape his conversations,” and later, along with her daughter Julie and many of us who were there, she believed the tapes, not yet evidence, should have been destroyed.

The handling of the tapes was indicative of what Pat Nixon saw as a central problem — the efforts of chief of staff Bob Haldeman to limit access to the president, providing privacy to formulate grand strategy, but also cutting the president off from old friends and advisers and dulling his political instincts.

It also militated against including his wife, long one of his most sensitive sounding boards, in making decisions, and that, Pat and Julie both believed, was the intent of Haldeman, who consistently tried to minimize her role and showed her less than the respect she deserved.

Had Richard Nixon destroyed the tapes, the outcome might have been different. But he didn’t, and when the final barrage began, it was unprecedented and often inexcusably nasty, as when the thrice-married bon vivant Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, characterized the Nixon marriage as “dingy.”

Mr. Bradlee’s Post, having helped bring down the Nixon presidency with the semifictional character Deep Throat, zeroed in on the family. When the Woodward-Bernstein book “The Final Days” appeared, with uncredited interviews savaging the Nixon marriage, Pat Nixon tried to read it. “Dick and his family blamed the book — which they believed was a despicable misrepresentation of them — for causing Pat’s stroke,” Mr. Swift writes.

However, as Julie Nixon Eisenhower put it, “the Nixon family is a close family.” During the last years, Richard Nixon regained his place as statesman and grand geopolitical strategist, and Pat Nixon took great pleasure in the company of her daughters and grandchildren, and in the close companionship that she and her husband had re-established.

In the end, writes Mr. Swift, “Pat Nixon promulgated the belief that self-made Americans could, by dint of perseverance, industry and determination, surmount early hardships to achieve their life goals.”

In 1993, when Pat Nixon died, Richard Nixon sobbed uncontrollably at her funeral. He joined her less than a year later.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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