- - Monday, July 27, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BEING NIXON: A MAN DIVIDED

By Evan Thomas

Random House, $35, 619 pages

Slowly but surely, the ranks of the rabid Nixon haters are thinning, to be replaced by more thoughtful and temperate writers and historians, free from the fierce ideological biases of the last century, able to look at Richard Nixon’s accomplishments as well as his failures, and to examine the man himself without the intense personal rancor of an earlier ideological era.

True, there are still pockets of intense hostility among what Pat Buchanan calls “the offspring of the old jackal pack,” whose range is primarily the northeast, and a fading cadre of aging college professors living on tenure and bile.

Recently released tapes (all of which could have been destroyed by Nixon at the outset without legal consequence) have given impetus to another round of studies, of which Evan Thomas‘ is by far the most objective and balanced, attempting as it does to give us the man in full, rather than the caricature his political enemies succeeded in creating — the portrait, as Mr. Thomas puts it, of “a private man living a public life.”

This is no small task. As the historian Margaret MacMillan wrote, “Even historians who disapprove of psychotherapy find themselves tempted irresistibly when it comes to Richard Nixon.” For the most part, Mr. Thomas resists the temptation admirably, giving us a well-written and balanced account of the life of an unusual man who suffered greatly and left the office he loved in disgrace, but while president accomplished great things for his country.

Mr. Thomas, an author of nine highly regarded books with a distinguished career in journalism, moves easily through Nixon’s boyhood in California, with just enough discussion of family life, featuring a feckless father and strong and principled mother (“My mother was a saint”); education and aspirations; living frugally in a tool shed while studying law at Duke; the relentless and oddly touching pursuit of Pat Ryan, who would be his faithful wife and partner for life; and the Navy, where he learned to swear (never adeptly) and play poker (with great skill).

There was his service in the U.S. House and Senate, his role in exposing Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, thus incurring the lasting hatred of the eastern liberal establishment, which would later exact its revenge; the uncertainty involving the vice presidential nod, resolved with the Checkers speech (“You’re my boy,” Gen. Eisenhower would tell him after the speech); and the years as vice president, with numerous foreign assignments.

In the 1960 presidential election, there was the narrow uncontested loss to JFK, most likely the result of vote-rigging in Mayor Daley’s Chicago, with a little extra from Texas; the hard loss in the California gubernatorial race; the remarkable comeback and the presidency in 1968; the historic landslide victory in 1972; Watergate and the resignation in 1974.

Mr. Thomas introduces some newly released material from the tapes and archives. But there’s little new to add what we already know. At the heart of it all was the break-in, engineered in no small part by John Dean for reasons no one seemed to know then, including President Nixon, and no one knows — or at least admits knowing — today.

Richard Nixon was finally forced from office. Nevertheless, he left behind a series of extraordinary accomplishments, especially so when considering that he took office during a chaotic period in a country running out of control — assassinations, race riots, bombings — and a war in Vietnam that his Democratic predecessors and their liberal think-tank advisers escalated and then dropped in his lap.

He ended the war, ended the draft, restored a measure of calm to the campuses and cities. Abroad, he permanently altered the international balance of power with the opening to China, and negotiated detente with the Soviet Union, paving the way for the collapse of Communism.

Mr. Thomas in no way downplays these accomplishments. But his interest goes to the man himself, like most of us a man of contradictions, a man with a dark and light side, with the dark side often leading to disastrous decisions, encouraged by his increasingly tight circle of self-serving advisers.

On the side of light, “Nixon was smarter, more intellectual, more open to ideas than almost any president who had come before him.” He was a devoted husband and father, with the total support of his splendid family. (Norman Mailer famously observed that a man with daughters like that can’t be all bad.) He was loathed by the impudent Georgetown snobs but to the end treated as a statesman of the first rank in capitals of the world, admired by his peers, even winning the approval of Charles de Gaulle.

Mr. Thomas‘ account of the last years is quick and quietly touching, a tribute of sorts to an extraordinarily complex man of whom Bill Clinton said in his eulogy at the funeral: “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”

With this gracefully written and highly readable book, Evan Thomas has brought that day much closer.

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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