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Nixon: A Life.

There have been few careers that have had more re-launches than that of the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Only recently an inane television reporter was proclaiming -- with no touch of irony -- that Mr. Nixon was an 'unimpeachable' mentor on American foreign policy. In March an incisive article by him in the New York Times about the need to help Boris Yeltsin led to his being summoned back to the White House by its current occupant. (The First Lady, whose profitable legal career began as one of the busy inquisitors for the Congressional Watergate Committee, was too preoccupied with her many other duties to find any time to greet such a distinguished statesman, but Mr. Nixon seems to have survived this loss).

Richard Nixon, unlucky in so many things, has been lucky in his latest biographer. Jonathan Aitken is a Conservative MP and now a Junior Minister at the Ministry of Defence. In 1978 'the disgraced former President' (the title normally accorded to Mr. Nixon by his vengeful enemies in the press) asked Mr. Aitken to arrange his visit to England, his first overseas trip since he had been driven from office. The young English politician came to have a great admiration for the senior American one and he has been collecting material for this book ever since. The account of this trip is one of the best things in this wonderful book and it is interesting to see the way that British politicians as diverse as Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson and Lord Tonypandy behaved towards a fallen leader. They were all both kind and perceptive in seeing that Richard Nixon would fight his way back. Edward Heath, of course, behaved in the way one would expect and ignored the visit.

This is not a hagiography for the author does see his subject's faults -- 'a dark side in which mendacity, deviousness, and personal disloyalty could come to the fore'. Yet the overall tone of this book is highly favourable. Mr. Aitken has had the opportunity to have many conversations with the former President and many major figures in his life and Administration. He has supplemented these American sources by consulting the reports of British diplomats in Washington as well as General de Gaulle's highly laudatory remarks on Mr. Nixon.

In this book we get the best available account of Richard Nixon the man. The author never allows the man to be obscured by his times. Yet he manages to recreate what it was like for someone to grow up in lower middle class America in the first half of this century. (His achievement is similar to what Geoffrey Ward did in his biography of Franklin Roosevelt.) He also shows how much of Richard Nixon's career was clouded by nasty class prejudices by his opponents. The author sees two persistent influences on his subject's life: religion and reading. This is a welcome change from biographers who see themselves as elevated gossip writers whose main duty is to grub about bedrooms hunting any lurid morsel and to dress up filth with footnotes. The Quakerism of Hannah Nixon has been a lifelong force upon her son and it was the origin of his desire to see peaceful relations with the Soviet Union and China. Reading has been the other source of strength and consolation to this essentially shy man: a reading that has been deep in history and literature. Those of us who were in the America of the 1960s heard much about Bobby Kennedy's discovery of Rome and Greece through two slim volumes by Edith Hamilton, we never heard anything about Richard Nixon reading his way through Tolstoy.

Jonathan Aitken himself has two great strengths: he can view Richard Nixon from the vantage point of an outsider, but also from that of a practical politician. He frankly admits that no European can understand Watergate. He does see that the President's role in the scandal was an 'ignoble' one, but he also sees that this successful coup staged by the liberal media against a leader they despised was a disaster not only for America but for the world. For Richard Nixon, fortified by his wide reading in history, had -- indeed still has -- the clearest perception of American foreign policy. The account of his Presidency rightly concentrates on that field and shows the remarkable achievement and the even more remarkable plans of the President. The author also shows how all the worse features of Watergate were only copies of what Democratic presidents such as Kennedy and Johnson had done to Richard Nixon himself. Robert Kennedy -- the most vicious and tyrannical Cabinet officer in American history since Edwin Stanton -- ordered tax authorities to try to dig up dirt on the whole Nixon family.

Although historians will still find much in the more detailed studies of the Nixon Administration such as those by Professor Stephen Ambrose, it will be a long time before Jonathan Aitken's superb biography is surpassed. It will rightly take its place as one of the finest biographies of any American president. It marks a large step towards justifying Lyndon Johnson's conclusion that his successor was one of the most remarkable of all American presidents.
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Author:Mullen, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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