Monday Book Review

December 23, 1991|By Bradford Jacobs

NIXON. Volume Three: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990. By Stephen E. Ambrose. Simon & Schuster. 667 pages. $27.50. TO JUDGE by the pitilessly frowning polls in the first week of August 1974, Richard M. Nixon was the first president of the United States to become a permanent pariah. There he stood in the Oval Office, a president condemned by his own misdeeds to stink forever, the proverbial mackerel in the moonlight. Would he never apologize for Watergate? Then drum him out and never, never forgive him.

He never did apologize; never will. Apologize for what? he says. Today, 17 years later, he stands tall on the political scene. He is honored at home, admired abroad, a poor man turned multi-millionaire. He is a leader sought for guidance on a dozen college campuses, in Washington, in Europe, in Asia. A few days ago the virtually virginal Wall Street Journal respectfully published a column by Nixon instructing the world how to deal with the uproar in Yugoslavia. He seems forgiven.

Even feverish Nixon-haters -- they still abound -- find their eyes drawn to the chiaroscuro portrait this astonishing man, ever the specialist in shadowy corners, has managed to paint of himself. Forgiven or not, Richard Nixon is self-resurrected, with flourishes. So how did he do it?

Detail by detail, quotation by quotation, in versions by friend and by foe -- sometimes a little heavily -- Stephen E. Ambrose sets it all forth almost day by day in "Nixon -- Ruin and Recovery." Ambrose is a professional historian, once an inhabitant of this Other Voices page, who shows a healthy streak of contrarian himself. Here he cannot suppress a spattering of politically correct groans at the expense of his notoriously mendacious subject. What Ambrose produces, consequently, is an admirably balanced study of a man who said of himself, "No one had ever been so high and fallen so low."

In two earlier volumes, Ambrose told of Nixon's political beginnings, then of events leading through his first term as president. This third book ignites the dynamite: Watergate explodes, Nixon's closest aides are thrown to the wolves, impeachment looms, Nixon takes flight to San Clemente, nearly dies of phlebitis. If you're over 40, you know this much of the story, but Ambrose keeps one eyebrow suspiciously raised throughout, thereby furnishing a new and engaging zing.

Less familiar, hence the fresh meat of the book, is the account of Nixon cleverly, often shamelessly hoisting himself rung by rung from the political dungeon which La Casa Pacifica had become to the New York pinnacle where he now perches, a latter-day Plutarch. He forever recounts how many of the world's leaders he has known and what makes each tick. Never mind that presidential successors -- Ford and Carter, Reagan and Bush -- do their best to ignore him. Wreathed in clouds of self-pity, clutching with surprising success for a place on the cover of Time -- 67 times, a record -- never stooping to accept The Establishment he says he despises, he daily enlarges the ground he stands on. Deep in his 70s, this man gets oracular treatment from young Americans, French and British. China's ancients agree.

Ambrose, though profoundly skeptical, confesses a certain "liking" for Nixon, "which is not easy to do . . . because never quit was not only the central theme of Nixon's political career. It was the core of his being."

His actions after The Fall in August 1974 bolster the point: at first a long and anguished silence in San Clemente, a sort of up-dated Elba; too much drinking, illness, despair; what to do for money. Then a party at a rich friend's nearby house; pointedly Spiro Agnew, another neighbor, is not present. Negotiations -- and the beginning of an interminable struggle -- for control of his presidential papers. He learns to like golf, to write a book. His White House friends are jailed, unmourned and unhelped by Nixon. David Frost puts him on television, earns him a handy $600,000-plus. He goes noisily to China, has a public triumph. This trip -- which he has promised Gerald Ford he would put off until after the 1976 election -- reminds still-grumbling voters that Ford pardoned him. Ford loses the election, narrowly.

"It is obvious," writes Ambrose, "that Nixon hurt the man who had done so much for him."

"Nixon's a shit," says Brent Scowcroft, Ford's campaign manager.

But Nixon's on his way, back to the top. His book catches on, makes money. He starts a series of books, speeches, articles -- "an army of pompous phrases marching over the landscape in search of an idea." He sells his place at Key Biscayne, then La Casa Pacifica. He pockets millions, moves to New York -- where his first chosen neighbors shoo him off. He becomes a social lion, entertaining publishers, columnists, other writers in his new Chinese-style home. They love him. He has arrived, though people have always been difficult for him.

As a personal matter, Ambrose observes, and quotes many others, that Nixon has always been physically clumsy, uneasy in company. He has no real friends, is forever acting a part, never relaxes. He embarrasses those near him with a painfully forced laugh -- "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha" -- often wrongly placed.

Determinedly fair-minded, Ambrose insists on crediting Nixon with the diplomatic opening to China, with beginning detente with the Soviets, with domestic revenue-sharing. Because Nixon had to resign, he goes on, what the country got was "not the Nixon Revolution but the Reagan Revolution. It got massive, unbelievable deficits. It got Iran-contra. It got the savings and loan scandals . . . the homeless . . . When Nixon resigned, we lost more than we gained."

To which Nixon in his strange, unconvincing way surely would have responded: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Bradford Jacobs is the retired editor of The Evening Sun editorial pages.

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