Kennedy and Nixon as you have never seen them -- brilliantly stripped of cliches

June 09, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I expected, at best, to find it tedious. I have known Christopher Matthews' confident, competent work for a dozen years or so- two books, columns, reporting . But what more could there be to say about JFK and RN? There can be nothing left.

In fact - in facts - there is not. But then facts so often are the enemies of truth.

With "Kennedy & Nixon, the Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America," (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages. $25), Matthews has produced a rarity: A book about contemporary politics centered upon ideas rather than data or anecdotes or record-making, a book that examines already familiar events yet informs, excites and nourishes fresh and powerful perceptions.

Here were two vastly different people with antithetical legacies: One civic-saintly, drawn heavenward by the great white steeds of glamour and martyrdom. The other, hell-bent, forever not-quite-clean-shaven, humiliated, detested even more than ridiculed.

Now comes Matthews, deftly, clearly laying aside myth, rancor and passion. With acute intelligence, with profound respect for the uniqueness and power of individuality, he wrenches truth from the quagmire of facts.

High and central among those truths is how amazing were the similarities, how congruent were the careers and the inner drives, of these two men.

Sleaze, lies

The book begins with theirHouse elections, in 1946. Kennedy (his campaign slogan: "a fighting conservative") sailed into the House on a sea of his father's money, much of it spent in methods somewhere between sleazy and criminal. Nixon ("practical liberal") wafted into office on a gas bag of lies and distortions suffocating Rep. Jerry Voorhis. Kennedy won 73 percent of the vote in his Massachuttes district, Nixon got 56 percent in his California constituency. A House seat paid $12,500 a year. (Today it is $133,600)

Infinitely ambitious, the two freshman became respectful, often fond, friends.

Overall, Matthews paints Kennedy and Nixon in the 1940s and early 1950s as equally ruthless. By January of 1953, Nixon, as vice president, was way ahead of Kennedy in their drives for the presidency, but their amiable relationship went on.

Notable was the fierce, common anticommunism - and Kennedy's unyielding support of Sen. Joseph McCarthy even in his worst days, when McCarthy has been repudiated by the Senate. Nixon had been equally devoted to rooting communists from government influence.

Today, when McCarthy and "McCarthyism" are often cited by those who were never there as something akin to the heydays of Attila the Hun or Torquemada, it is refreshing and instructive to be persuasively reminded what a pathetic and impotent and widely ridiculed drunken abberant McCarthy was and how narrow and transitory the influence of his demagoguery.

The Kennedy and Nixon rivalry climaxed in the election of 1960, a razor-thin JFK victory. The pall of the possibility that Illinois and Texas had been stolen by Democratic machines was never quite dispelled. The final vote was Kennedy 49.7 percent, Nixon 49.5 percent. The friendship shattered in a vicious campaign. Rivalry intensified.

Then the Kennedy presidency and assasination, the Camelot legend, Johnson and Goldwater, Nixon, waiting, working - the book moves to Nixon's 1968 election.

Even long after JFK's death, the "Kennedy & Nixon" theme holds firm and true. Nixon remained obsessed by the Kennedys, justifiably so as first Robert and Edward rose to challenge him, the dynastic pressure unrelenting, immortal.

Matthews shows the complexity of that mind in recording with crystalline spareness gestures such as a very private visit by Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children to the White House and their very private and affectionate reception by four Nixons.

Matthews presents the Watergate story through the 1972 Nixon landslide as a madness intiated and driven above all else by Nixon's unquenchable fear of Kennedy family resurgence.

Loyalists abound

Of course, that fear was rooted in truth. The Congress-driven Watergate investigation was significantly managed and directed by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Kennedy loyalists. The Washington Post was edited by Ben Bradlee, who had been a bosom friend of John Kennedy.

The book is illuminated with fascinating glimpses into both men off stage. Matthews writes: "Prior to an interview on the Kennedy assasination, CBS producer Don Hewitt, who had directed the great debate three years earlier, asked guest Richard Nixon if he wanted the makeup person, Francis Arvold , to prepare him for the broadcast. Nixon accepted. Hewitt could not resist kidding, "If Frannie had done your makeup three years ago, you'd be president now." Nixon's response was equally macabre.

"'I would be dead now too.,' he said."

It is that sort of drawing out of details from one of the most intensely watched and recorded eras in human history, that gives this book its exquisite focus.

Matthews writes splendidly. His rythym is energetic. His pace is unrelenting. His command of imagery is bright and refreshing. The book is marred occasionally by an overreaching metaphor. (His parrallel of JFK/RN to Mozart/Salieri is far too facile, but what the hell.)

Asking myself at the end about Matthews' view of either man, both men, I found myself compelled to the same answer: Respect, skepticism, distrust - detachment. That drives the hagiographers and the hate-collectors to froth at the mouth and to rage at the stars for shedding light - but I know no finer description of the reporter's task.

An important book for now. And, perhaps, a century from now.

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