Friday, July 17, 2015

‘One Man Against The World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon’

In an author’s note at the beginning of his One Man Against The World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, Tim Weiner asks the obvious questions about his subject:

What compelled him to commit crimes – secretly collecting campaign cash from foreign dictators and aspiring American ambassadors, wiretapping his loyal aides and distinguished diplomats as if they were foreign spies – and then conspire to conceal them? Why did he drive the nation deeper into Vietnam, at a cost of tens of
thousands of American lives, only to accept a settlement no better than the one he could have signed on his first day in office? Why did he lie about his war plans to his secretary of defense and his secretary of state? What were the Watergate burglars seeking? Why did Nixon tape-record the evidence that proved his complicity in the cover-up? Why did he undertake the unconstitutional actions that led to his resignation?

Weiner, who has reviewed the tens of thousands of declassified documents released between 2007 and August of 2014, writes that we now have the answers to those questions and “the story is richer and stranger than we ever knew:”

For those who lived under Nixon, it is worse than you may recollect. For those too young to recall, it is worse than you can imagine.

Weiner has not written a biography of Nixon. Very little is said of his early life. Rather, One Man Against the World focuses on his presidency and, in particular, his conduct of the Vietnam war and Watergate.

Weiner begins by detailing Nixon’s efforts to prevent South Vietnam from entering into an agreement brokered by LBJ which would have ended the war. He meets with the Ambassador of South Vietnam in the presence of “The Dragon Lady,” Anna Chennault, and John Mitchell: “He wanted to make sure that a clear message was conveyed [to the president of South Vietnam] in private: whatever peace deal the Democrats were offering, South Vietnam would be far better served if the staunchly anticommunist Richard Nixon were in the White House.” As Weiner points out, it is a federal crime for a private person to conduct diplomacy with a foreign government against the interests of the U.S.

As Nixon’s presidency proceeded, so did its violations of law. However, it was Nixon’s oft-stated view, “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

Weiner presents a secretive, paranoid, deceptive, sometimes delusional Nixon who was anti-Semitic, hated Ivy-educated eastern establishment types, sneered at student protestors as “bums,” and was often drunk. He was suspicious of his closest aides as well as his enemies, and trusted no one:

But Richard Nixon was never at peace. A darker spirit animated him – malevolent and violent, driven by anger and insatiable appetite for revenge. At his worst he stood on the brink of madness. He thought the world was against him. He saw enemies everywhere. His greatness became an arrogant grandeur.

And, through it all, he believed himself to be a great statesman.

Clearly, Weiner has done his research. There are thirty-one pages of small print footnotes, documenting or attributing every quotation and statement.

If there is one fault with the book, it is the unremitting recitation of wrong-doing. Admittedly, I am no fan of Richard Nixon and was one of those “bums” protesting his actions and applauding his downfall but even he must have had some redeeming qualities somewhere. There are only two brief mentions of Pat Nixon. There is nothing of his family or personal life beyond noting his frequent trips to join Bebe Rebozo for booze-soaked respites.

Certainly, I am not advocating a whitewash or the manufacturing of more sympathetic qualities if none existed. Nor do I think Weiner was required to write a family biography or a psychological study instead of the riveting book he has given us. I am saying only that, while I applaud Weiner’s presentation of what Nixon did, I am left somewhat unsatisfied as to the person himself. Did he enjoy anything other than revenge and power? Was he ever kind or empathetic to anyone? Was he really a total monster?

I disagree with The Wall Street Journal which, of course, dismisses the book out of hand: “This is little more than another anti-Nixon hit job – as if the world needed any more of those… [It] is a book that will only charm inveterate Nixon haters eager to see their prejudices reconfirmed.” (Max Boot, 6/19/15)

One Man Against the World is not a “hit job.” If anyone did a “hit job” on Nixon, it was Nixon himself who created his own destruction. As he later said, “I gave them a sword and they stuck it in.”

Tim Weiner is the author of five books. His history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, won the National Book Award. He has also received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his writing on secret government programs. As a New York Times correspondent, he reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. He is an Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton.

1 comment:

  1. I can agree with this, " Admittedly, I am no fan of Richard Nixon and was one of those “bums” protesting his actions and applauding his downfall but even he must have had some redeeming qualities somewhere." I've always wondered about Trica & Julie. They at least publicly supported their father and neither seem to be "ashamed" of him. Weiner's book sounds interesting but do I really want to go back there?