Two Richard Milhous Nixons: books by Crowley and Bundy On Books

June 07, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

In May of 1984, three months short of 10 years after he resigned from the presidency, Richard Nixon appeared before the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual convention. The audience, though polite, was far from cordial. A number of my friends boycotted the lunch. A few fellow members turned their backs as Nixon was introduced.

Nixon's talk, given without notes, was candid, confiding, respectful without caviling. It concentrated on international politics. It was impressively cool-headed, precise in detail and reasoned. The crowd warmed, with palpable reluctance.

Then Nixon took questions. The fifth was from Neil Morgan of the San Diego Tribune, who asked him about that year's presidential contest.

Without a note and without a moment's hesitation, Nixon surveyed the nation, region by region, citing poll figures and previous votes. He analyzed the strength of possible Democratic tickets, and predicted Ronald Reagan would defeat Walter Mondale.

Nixon's recitation was remarkable. His mastery of the political landscape seemed to stun the crowd, even the most senior and case-hardened newspaper editors in the country. That brilliance - "brilliance" was the word almost everybody used - infested the chatter of the four-day convention.

Within a few weeks, many who were there and who despised Nixon seemed to forget that day's impression, and reverted to characterizing Nixon as a sort of evil oaf. Somehow, they couldn't bear the idea of Nixon as even an evil genius or near-genius.

Doubtless, such will be the nature of many professional judgments of Nixon for a long time to come. He died five years ago. But a dispassionate historical assessment of Nixon may have to await the silence of those of us who knew him.

Meanwhile, an extraordinary young woman, Monica Crowley, has arrived with her second volume about the last years of Nixon's life: "Nixon in Winter" (Random House, 415 page, $30).

It follows her 1996 "Nixon Off the Record" (Random House, 231 pages, $23). Both are based on her virtual daily contact with Nixon for the last four years of his life. Crowley, barely 30 now, first made contact with Nixon as an undergraduate at Colgate. He responded to a letter she wrote and invited her to interview him. That in turn led to his hiring her as research assistant for his last two books. Gradually, she became his increasingly intensely close confidante.

Nixon encouraged her to take notes of their conversations and to retain copies of documents. She methodically transcribed her notes daily. That gave her a rich record that has become the largest element of both books.

Naturally enough, Crowley has always been a Nixon fan - but not an uncritical one.

Early in this book, she declares: "It was not just Nixon's ambiguities that made him fascinating, but the way the epic moments of his life alternated with moments of pure common sense, humor, tenderness and vulnerability. Behind the political genius was something disarmingly common, a humanity that was not part of the public image."

That is not a common view, of course. It has always been difficult to like Nixon. (I never managed to.) For some people, it has been easy to hate him.

He turned out to be right on many major issues - the ultimate collapse of communism, the establishment of the certainty that Alger Hiss was, indeed, a major Soviet agent, many other matters. That Nixon was right and a large proportion of right-thinking American liberals, and especially intellectuals, were wrong makes him, even today, all the more detestable and detested.

Witness the most recent work on Nixon from the core of the old American Liberal Establishment: "A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency," by William Bundy (Hill & Wang, 647 pages, $35), an elaborately detailed assessment of Nixon's entire record in world politics.

Bundy, a lifelong member of the East Coast intellectual foreign policy hierarchy, dismisses as cynical or superficial or short-lived virtually every Nixon policy. The only exception Bundy makes is to grant him a bit of credit for work on Middle East peace, though xTC Henry Kissinger dominated that, in Bundy's argument.

Fellow enthusiasts and cloistered academics will read Bundy's book as a tribal rite. Anyone genuinely interested in the nature of power and the powerful will profit far more from reading Crowley's fascinating, serious and historically important contribution to the Nixon record.

A huge amount of her text is conversational give-and-take between Nixon and herself, valuable original material. There is a lot of very candid, reflective stuff: Nixon bemoans that at the outset of the Watergate disaster, when - as he insisted - he knew nothing about the events, he had not gone on national television, pledged to punish everyone responsible for wrongdoing, and made and kept the entire matter very public. There is lots more, constituting a sort of mirror-memoir that is far more revealing than Nixon's own prodigious written record.

Crowley does not fail to provide historic context, however. Sometimes clearly on Nixon's advice and urging she includes references to Nixon's experiences and actions of decades before. Often, she delved deep into political history as she developed the book.

The result is not a maturely professional work of history. It is too tightly focused a celebration of Nixon as a man and as a personal mentor, often a dominant and domineering personality with Crowley. But it is a book of eloquent revelation and elegant sensibilities. Finally, it is an insightful examination not only of one of the most complex and consequential men of the 20th century - but of the forces, issues and dynamics of Nixon's era.

! Pub date: 6/07/98

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