A delicious fund of detail from the last four of Richard Milhous Nixon's 80 years

August 04, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

A great deal of attention will come to the latest book on Richard Milhous Nixon, initially just for the circumstances of its origin. Monica Crowley, 21 years old and about to begin her senior college year, wrote to Nixon in 1989 about one of his books. He responded with an invitation to visit. That led to her being hired as research assistant for his ninth and tenth books.

She appears to have been his closest personal confidante for the last four years of his life. From that experience comes "Nixon Off the Record: His Candid Commentary on People and Politics" (Random House, 231 pages. $23).

Crowley took notes, with Nixon's encouragement, often as he spoke to her, and then immediately afterwards expanded upon them in her diary, of which she believes he was unaware.

The effect is a narrative that often seems simply a distillation in Nixon's words of his reflections on ongoing events. Most of it involves contemporary politics, primarily as a frame in which Nixon examined and re-examined his self-perceived greatness and ill-recognized failings.

He saw the presidents who followed him in a gray and rather mean-spirited light. Much will be made of the abrasiveness of many of the barbed judgments Crowley recorded.

The book essentially is an extended memorandum, a report of very specific reach: what he said and when he said it. That finely displays Nixon's capacity to articulate his relationship with power, ambition, the course of his career - and his immensely comprehensive understanding of world politics. But it shows little in the way of depth, except, arguably, for little flashes of his capacity to be somewhat frank - though still totally in control - with a bright young woman who was useful to him.

Warm and witty

Crowley's dedication is "For President Nixon /Mentor and Friend." Unequivocal. She describes the Nixon she knew as "kind, trusting ... magnanimous, warm, and witty, willing to share his wisdom, experiences, joys, and regrets openly and freely."

Her sincerity cannot be doubted. Yet for those who, on the basis of long observation, find such a description beyond the remotest reach of imagining, this book may be a reservoir of pathos or a cup of bile. It may anger, outrage, even nauseate - but it will not bore.

There are informed and emotionally integrated people in America today who believe Nixon was an abysmally evil, unredeemably cynical, indefatigable plotter for self-aggrandizement who lived and died innocent of even the concept of personal moral or ethical values.

There is another cadre of detractors who detested Nixon very simply because of political polarity: He was a genuine, true-believing and practical conservative - the very idea of which can drive certain wraiths of the left to hours of wailing inconsolably at the moon, eyes bloodshot and mouths frothing.

There is another body of people who are conscious of Nixon and who found him personally unappealing to the point of odiousness, and flawed at a level of moral negligence, but nonetheless brilliant and in important ways effective, especially in working with the broader structures of world politics.

And then there are the people who, though troubled in varying degrees by what they perceive as sad lapses that constituted "Watergate," thought and think Nixon to have been a great president and a great man.

Count Monica Crowley among the last.

She intrudes very little upon the content of the book, which is - simply and complexly -Richard M. Nixon. When she speaks for herself, the voice is charming, decent, guileless.

But there is enormous vitality and vein of insight here, including acute flashes of recognition by a very smart young woman. It takes courage for Crowley to report touches of Nixon's unyielding vanity, insisting to her, for example, that he watched little or no television, only to be caught by her at it.

Not to be pardoned

Very occasionally, she steps back to draw a conclusion. One of the most telling and effective:

"History, he [Nixon] often said, has its own momentum. His judgment of other leaders was an attempt to prompt a corrective historical judgment of his own presidency, not to excuse his mistakes but to place them in context. When he said of Reagan that he 'did what he thought was best, as we all did,' he was saying he had done his best... Nixon was asking for history not to pardon him but to grant him an evenhandedness that so far he had been denied."

The book is dominated by Nixon's yearning for recognition, attention, "respect" from presidents (the phrase that Crowley uses: "to advance his own profile") and others. That is sometimes terrifying, often grotesquely pathological.

The volume is a chronological, otherwise unstructured, narrative throughout, more raw material than a shaped book. That is a strength, not a failing: I believe any attempt that she might have made to turn the book into anything else would have damaged the data and offered little new insight.

In all, this is an irreplaceable resource for the future. It contains details, complexities, data of consequence about the last four years of the life of a man who - like him or not, like it or not - was vitally important to a third of a century of American and world history. Much of that appears nowhere else and because of Crowley's extraordinary access has been recorded nowhere else.

It is fascinating I n its revelations. It is sad, a moving reminder of the loneliness of isolation. It kindles a fervent hope that Monica Crowley some day will write another book, bringing to that extraordinary four years of experience reflections and perspective that for entirely understandable reasons are not in this volume.

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