The Nixon legacy, examined critically

October 18, 1994|By Claude R. Marx | Claude R. Marx,Special to The Sun

Richard Nixon's post-resignation obsession with rehabilitating his image manifested itself in literary and diplomatic endeavors that met with mixed results. Despite the canonization he received when he died this year, though, Nixon's efforts were far from an unqualified success.

In "The Nixon Memo," Marvin Kalb presents a devastating critique of Nixon's policies and character. This well-reported and tightly written analysis provides the necessary dose of reality with which to evaluate the former president.

Mr. Kalb rightly contends that the political and economic crisis facing Russia was merely an excuse for Nixon to find some way, any way, to ingratiate himself with the political establishment. The book recounts Nixon's often shameless effort to lobby presidents Bush and Clinton to increase American aid to Russia.

Mr. Kalb notes that Nixon "seized on it as the perfect, proper and respectable cause to advance his deeper purposes of rehabilitation . . . by whatever means, he was determined to recover his place in history."

This analysis is typical of the book's tone throughout. Mr. Kalb, a Harvard professor and former diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC, has a generally cynical attitude toward Nixon's efforts.

To achieve his goal of regaining influence, Nixon spent his years in exile writing eight books on policy issues and buttonholing any opinion leader who would listen. He traveled extensively and visited with foreign leaders and reported his findings to American policy makers.

These efforts culminated in March 1992, when he wrote a detailed memo to a select group of policy makers and journalists. In it, he predicted that if the United States failed to provide Russia with a comprehensive aid package, the balance of power would be dramatically affected. He also argued that the United States could be blamed for "losing" Russia to undemocratic regimes -- an interesting line of reasoning from the man who made a name for himself blaming Democrats for "losing" China to the communists.

Mr. Kalb succeeds in punching many holes in Nixon's analysis.

The Bush administration was upset with the Nixon memo and a speech Nixon gave at a Washington conference he organized. Mr. Bush and his aides contended that Nixon was grandstanding and described the Nixon proposals as too extravagant. Although Mr. Clinton made Nixon's proposals part of his policy, they were largely a failure as Russia was unable to make adequate use of the aid.

Mr. Kalb, who was once a press attache at the American Embassy in Moscow, displays a blunt realism when analyzing U.S.-Russian relations, similar to that displayed by Nixon during much of his career. But unlike Nixon's final work, Mr. Kalb's arguments are not driven by blatant political considerations. When it comes to Russia, Mr. Kalb has no axes to grind, ideological or otherwise.

Unfortunately, that cannot be said about his attitude toward Nixon himself. Mr. Kalb is largely critical of the Nixon presidency, and even when he praises an initiative, such as normalizing relations with China, Mr. Kalb does so only grudgingly.

It is in the final chapter that one learns why Mr. Kalb had such a strong, and justifiable, dislike of the former president. During the height of Watergate and the Vietnam War, Mr. Kalb was placed on the famous White House "enemies list," his home telephone was wiretapped, his office was broken into, and he was audited and otherwise harassed by the Internal Revenue Service. The reader might have been better served knowing of Mr. Kalb's experiences at the outset of the book so that his analysis could be evaluated accordingly. Nevertheless, "The Nixon Memo" is an insightful and thoughtful look at an important era and a man who will continue to fascinate and intrigue us for years.

Claude R. Marx is a Washington correspondent for Investor's Business Daily.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Nixon Memo: Political Respectability, Russia, and the Press"

Author: Marvin Kalb

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Length, price: 248 pages, $19.95

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