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THE AGE OF NIXON
Conrad Black writes that the disgraced president was 'a great American.’ It’s a large claim—but this is a large book.
PETER C. NEWMAN
I saw Richard Nixon up close only twice. The first occasion was at a press conference in the East Room of the White House. Impeccably dressed and carefully made up, he resembled a headwaiter in a once-great restaurant that no longer boasted a first-rate chef, nervously greeting diners with a patina of charm to gloss over his seismic insecurities. This was the time of the raucous debates about the 1968 My Lai atrocities, involving American soldiers who had massacred a Vietnamese village of innocent civilians. The war hung over Washington like a shroud. Almost every power lunch conversation ended with the same hysterical plea—not that different from current, post-espresso laments: uHow in hell do we get oat of there?”
Back at the White House, in the glare of the klieg lights and under the assault of reporters’ rude questions,
Nixon was patrolling himself, adjusting his cadences, vainly looking for rescue from his aides. They sat there, resplendent in blue blazers, sporting the last brush cuts in captivity, hovering, no—straining with him as he recited answers larded with memorized statistics that produced zero impact on his audience. About 15 minutes into the press conference, Nixon began to sweat; it wasn’t long before the perspiration caused his makeup to run, its rivulets streaking his five o’clock shadow. I felt embarrassed for the leader of the free world.
As I looked around the magnificent East Room, festooned with gilt chairs, crystal chandeliers hanging from the Adam ceiling, and the portraits of George and Martha Washington flanking the stage, I wondered how this great nation could have at its head, during such an agonizing time, this jittery leader. Then, our glances briefly locked and just for an instant—a frozen flutter in time—I caught what I judged to be the real Nixon. His neck muscles as taut as a pole vaulter’s, he had the look of a fugitive who had spent a lifetime being snubbed, begging for belief...
This was pretty much the substance of my memory of the 37th President of the United States, until I read Conrad Black’s The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Nixon. Having plowed through the 1,152 pages of this compelling chronicle, I still think I was right about the irrationalities of the Vietnam War, but wrong about the shallowness of the American head of state. The portrait that emerges from Black’s literary tour de force is that modern America’s most controversial president was a
political catalyst, “both brilliant and strangely awkward but ultimately and uniquely indestructible. And in his perseverance he made many of his countrymen awkward also, throughout a very long career, and after. He would not go away, and lingers yet.”
I have been in considerable awe of Conrad Black’s research methods since his 1977 biography of former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, in which he revealed that the opening of the urethra on Duplessis’ penis was not in the customary position. That’s deep background of an impressive nature, and he has now applied the same exhaustive quest for detail to Tricky Dick. (What a coincidence!) Black has the knack of digging up unexpected sidelights to fill out his subject’s character, such as the time Tricky and his wife Pat celebrated their wedding anniversary aboard a Caribbean cruise. Its visual highlight was a costume party, with Nixon dressed in drag as a Grecian courtesan, complete with sheet, turban, brooch and a false bosom. (I’d give a nickel to have seen that.) His talent for five-stud poker makes interesting reading. He once bluffed a senior naval officer out of US$1,500 with a pair of twos.
Although he was president only from 1969 to 1974 when he resigned in disgrace, the hefty marrow of this book’s contents justifies labelling a very much longer period in American political history as the Age of Nixon. As well as his abruptly terminated presidency, he influenced many administrations, notably Dwight Eisenhower’s (19531961), when he served as an activist vicepresident. Again and again, Black gives substance to his contention that “Nixon was the people. He was laborious but effective, eloquent but not hypnotizing, cynical but compassionate and patriotic. [He] achieved as much as any American political leader since Abraham Lincoln, except for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he did it against his own usually troublesome anxiety and limitations and awkwardnesses. He fought successfully all his long life, and when he died, he was acknowledged to be a unique and, in his way, a great American.”
These are large claims but this is a large book, and what impresses the reader is that Black, for once, allows the evidence to make his case, instead of setting out his own stall or simply declaiming his unlikely cause. In this stunningly researched and evocatively written work, he examines the uses and abuses of political power, with the care of a lepidopterist (butterfly collector—gotcha!). The devil
• may be in the volume’s details, but the details are also in its grace notes. For example, this fragment of Black’s description of the youthful Nixon’s dreams: “Young Richard listened to the distant train whistles and the roar of the steam engines in the night, ‘the sweetest music Fve ever heard,’ and dreamt of the wider world. There was often the scent of citrus groves in the air, but the harsh life of the great ranches, the farms and the migrant workers, the hucksterism of this early phase of the great trek to California from the East and the Midwest blended uneasily with the Quakerism of the Nixons and their neighbours.”
To Henry Kissinger’s rhetorical question about Nixon’s emotionally deprived youth, “Can you imagine what this man could have done if he had ever been loved?”, Black counters with the claim that his upbringing was “desperately serious but stable and emotionally solid.” I find it hard to take his word for it, since Nixon admits that his mother “never indulged in the present day custom, which I find nauseating, of hugging or kissing her children.” Such an upbringing could have produced another Prince Charles, who owes his batty adult persona to the day his mother, the Queen, returned from an extended overseas tour and greeted her six-year-old son— who was jumping up and down in glee—by shaking his hand. Richard Nixon’s youth was equally corrosive, scalding his soul. He was not your average teenage fashion plate either, walking to school, sometimes barefoot, carrying shoes and socks in a paper bag, attending
BLACK PROVIDES THE SERIOUS HISTORY OF EACH POLITICAL CRISIS THAT HAUNTED NIXON, BUT ALSO INCLUDES A STRING OF ANECDOTES THAT MAKES THE BOOK A WORTHY ADDITION TO POLITICAL BOOKSHELVES
classes from first grade on, dressed in a starched white shirt and black bow tie.
Black’s own conversion to supporting the Nixon record was nothing short of remarkable. In 1981, when I interviewed Conrad for my biography of his formative career (The Establishnie?îtMan: A Portrait in Power), he hesitated not a moment before painting Nixon as a weird sicko. “[His] problem was basically psychological and he deserves the compassion due to sick people,” was the future lord’s verdict. “He was sleazy, tasteless, and neurotic, but I thought he had one partially redeeming virtue: he had the mind
of a foreigner. While he spoke in idealistic terms, he knew that it was all a bunch of bunk, that the world just wanted to steal America’s money and use it.” Not too many years later, I watched the two of them kibitzing at one of the post-annual-Hollinger-meeting dinners at the Toronto Club. Nixon, who by then had been out of office for a decade and had grown much tamer and wiser since
my previous encounter, spent a good quarter of his speech praising Black’s profound knowledge of American politics. Black was equally fulsome in his admiration for the man he had once vilified, painting him as a kind of postmodern John the Baptist. That memorable evening the two hoofers acted like a pair of hopped-up Ayn Rand groupies, inflating neo-con vapours into a theology of sorts. No one mentioned Watergate.
Black avoids the bear trap of the shabby cover-up of the bungled Watergate burglary by admitting that it was the glaring blot on the president’s record, even if, as he claims,
it was vastly distorted and exaggerated by the liberal press, which he accuses of “sanctimonious pseudo-legalistic putschism.” (Sounds like some church-sanctioned laxative.) “In the end,” Black noted in his own memoirs, “only Richard Nixon could, and did, defeat and humiliate Richard Nixon.” He agreed both with Nixon’s confession, “I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in, twisted it with relish,” and supported Nixon’s bizarre justification of the Watergate scandal—that his enemies had assassinated him, “but I impeached myself by resigning.”
Black blames Nixon’s problems on his natural shyness, his sensitivity to being an outsider, his lack of flamboyance and absence of any dominant image except that of a man too lazy to have shaved properly. (When Nixon accused John F. Kennedy of being a bald-faced liar, the Democratic candidate shot back that no one who had seen Nixon in the late afternoon could ever accuse him of being bald-faced.) “Richard Nixon was a greatly interesting figure of history because of the constant speculation about what he might have done had his paranoia not driven him to succeed,” observed Ted Rushton, a Phoenix-based political analyst. “My resentment of Nixon is based on his embrace of racial politics to win the presidency in 1968; Nixon was the poster-boy for this strategy, but by the same token he might have been rejected by the majority of Republicans had he not gone along with it. People tend to be self-serving after the fact. Nixon tried mightily to rehabilitate his image after his resignation but he didn’t change his character. He never had the self-confidence that he had good ideas; instead, he tried to dominate his opponents by force instead of reason.”
Nixon’s overwhelmingly negative image all but obliterated his genuine accomplishments. His problems were more psychological than political. Terminally unable to act like “one of the boys,” Nixon was not an easy man to like, or even to share an elevator with. Typical of his idea of how to ingratiate himself with the media was the time he greeted the distinguished British TV host, David Frost, just before an interview crucial to his rehabilitation: “So, did you do any fornicating this weekend?”
He was one of those unfortunates born without the genetic mechanism that produces a sense of humour. Kennedy speech writer Ted Sorensen once explained that Nixon was cursed with “a bitter mindset that ill-equipped him to fight fire with fire and humour with humour.” Nixon’s work addiction was legendary. Having promised countless times that he would treat his family to a picnic but too preoccupied to do so, one humid Sunday
BLACK’S OWN CONVERSION TO SUPPORTING THE NIXON RECORD WAS NOTHING SHORT OF REMARKABLE. WHEN I INTERVIEWED HIM IN 1981, HE HESITATED NOT A MOMENT BEFORE PAINTING NIXON AS A WEIRD SICKO: ’SLEAZY, TASTELESS AND NEUROTIC.’
afternoon in 1951 Nixon finally invited them to the long-promised occasion. The family members were dressed in country clothes but the picnic’s venue turned out to be a blanket, spread in front of his desk, in his airconditioned office.
With the exception of the Watergate coverup, Black has produced credible rationales for most, if not all of, Nixon’s actions. But it takes nearly every one of the volume’s half-million words to make his contrarian theories persuasive. Nixon didn’t make his sympathetic biographer’s task any easier. He nourished lifelong suspicions instead of nurturing trust, and behaved like the ultimate loner. His natural awkwardness and lack of social graces combined to disarm and to some extent nullify his solemnly rehearsed pronouncements, so that they seldom measured up to the significant historic forces he set in train. This included reopened relations with China, his pivotal role in launching the strategic arms limitation process, and his determination to accel-
erate the collapse of Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt. Black writes that Nixon considered McCarthy “a dangerous and vapid demagogue.”
Black provides the serious history of each political crisis that haunted Nixon, but also includes a string of anecdotes that make a brick-size book like this, if not exactly a beach read, certainly a worthy addition to political bookshelves. For example: on Dec. 12,1950, in the washroom of the Sulgrave Club, the pugnacious senator McCarthy had forcefully “kneed” liberal columnist Drew Pearson in his crotch, “testing an old Indian theory that the victim of such an attack would bleed through the eyes.” Nixon restored peace between them, and claimed to have saved Pearson’s life.
Another reason why Black’s book works is that while he has concentrated on tracing the unpredictable arc of Nixon’s life, he also spins some compelling tales about the turbulence of his times. In fact, taken together with his magnificent Roosevelt biography, The Invincible Quest adds up to an essential chronicle of the American Century, now clearly ending with the political self-immolation of George W. Bush and his shady cohorts.
The volume’s main shortcoming is Black’s insistence that the story be told mostly through his observations. Clever as they are, by summarizing and interpreting what others say in his own words he robs readers of the sound of diverse voices. The book takes off on those rare occasions when he allows members of the supporting cast to speak for themselves. It’s the difference between Conrad speculating about how Roosevelt felt about the ascending corruption of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, and hearing FDR rant: “[He’s a] son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
One of the book’s intriguing subtexts is the bizarre relationship between Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, whose real given names, Black reveals, are Heinz Alfred. Kissinger and Nixon “were very considerable men, and they rendered great service,” Black writes. “In some ways their natures were complementary, and Kissinger was right to refer to their desire to ‘walk alone.’ But in other ways, they
brought out each others’ worst qualities, especially paranoia, amorality, an unquenchable desire for praise and recognition, and, in Kissinger’s case, the obsequiousness of the courtier. It has become a truism of modern American history that they were almost symbiotic, despite their lack of personal rapport.”
Richard Nixon was a pivotal figure in American politics for half a century. The Invincible Quest gives him his due at last. In a 2002 review of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by David Nasaw, which was a revealing yet not hostile biography of the American press magnate, Conrad Black characterized the book as “readably and exactly connecting the legend to the facts.” That’s the perfect description of his own effort to separate the Tricky Dick caricature from the real Richard Milhous Nixon. M