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Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990.

Does the country really need another book on Richard M. Nixon? For one who has spent nearly 40 years having Dick Nixon to kick around and has done his share of kicking, the answer at first blush is: enough already. All too familiar are the deception, tastelessness, and shamelessness of this world-class rotter who poisoned American political life for so long, chronicled exhaustively - nay exhaustingly - once again by this author. Who needs to be reminded?

But wait a minute. Like Bram Stoker's prince of darkness, not only is Richard Nixon back, but he no longer fears the daylight. And why should he? Seventeen years after the Watergate stake was driven into his heart, he is casting a shadow again, a very large one, on the foreign-policy consciousness of the country. His transparently self-congratulatory books, his occasional television forays, and his endlessly gratuitous advice to the country that told him to get lost in 1974 are all conspicuous elements in his re-resurrection.

As Ambrose(*) notes, a whole generation has come of age without a clear remembrance of Nixon's crimes, so maybe another book laying them out in all their squalor would be a public service. Whether this book is the one to perform that service, however, is arguable. On the one hand, it is comprehensively accurate in regurgitating the sordid details of the Watergate cover-up and the aftermath, gleaned tirelessly from the available Watergate transcripts and tapes and relatively few interviews (only 17 in all, an embarrassingly small number for a book of 637 pages) with players major (Bob Haldeman, Chuck Colson, Gerald Ford) and minor (Hugh Sidey, Richard Reeves, William Safire). But its reliance on such written sources as Nixon's own exceedingly self-serving books and one by the even more discredited revisionist Spiro Agnew risks diminishing its overall credibility.

Equally corrosive is the fact that Ambrose, after having presented all of the Nixon obscenities and correctly identifying them as such, falls back on the old everybody-did-it dodge, contending that John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were guilty of all or most of Nixon's crimes but just didn't get caught. While it is true that neither JFK nor LBJ was a choir boy, neither of them systematically subverted the Constitution in the manner of Nixon and his henchmen. The author, while repeatedly and devastatingly spearing Nixon for his lies and evasions, is strangely sympathetic, even idolatrous, toward him on other occasions, to the point of naivete.

For example, Ambrose buys Nixon's argument in his memoirs that a very damaging quotation from one Watergate tape was inadvertently missing from a transcript Nixon submitted to House investigators. The author writes that "it would have been ridiculous for him to eliminate a passage from the transcripts when it was on one of the tapes that had already been handed over to the committee." Yet Ambrose quotes a world-renowned scholar "in textual criticism and bibliography" who concludes that "throughout recorded history no author has ever produced, albeit unwittingly, a text so systematically debased and corrupt." Ambrose's own chronicle definitively establishes that there was nothing, nothing whatever, that Nixon would not say or do to save his own skin, down to the most patently false contention.

The author professes that summaries of taped conversations between Nixon and White House Counsel John Dean were "skillfully done," though with slight augmentations "that gave an interpretation more favorable to Nixon." He argues as well that the Watergate tapes "were Nixon's best defense ... for the obvious reason that they contained so many exculpatory statements by Nixon, statements that he had made in his own transparent way whenever he remembered that the recorder was running." But throughout his long career, Nixon has been so transparent in his self-serving actions that it is hard to see how a serious, long-term student of this devious and basically insecure man could conclude that the tapes were Nixon's best defense. The Watergate investigators and eventually the public at large saw through his faking, rendering the tapes utterly self-incriminating.

Ambrose also accepts Nixon's contention that he ended the Vietnam War "with honor" and states that he "brought peace to Vietnam." What he did was withdraw American troops from South Vietnam in a war that during his successor's term saw a humiliating evacuation under fire of the American embassy in Saigon and the overrunning of South Vietnam by North Vietnam. In his conclusions, Ambrose seemingly contradicts himself on Nixon's ending of the war by observing that "if Watergate had never happened and had Nixon stayed in office, he would have been in a better position to extract some funds from Congress" to bolster the Saigon government in 1975.

In a recitation of Nixon's personal financial manipulations - his purchasing property through sweetheart deals with his buddy Bebe Rebozo and others, and his taking a huge income-tax deduction for giving away his vice-presidential papers after backdating the donation to qualify under a then-expired tax regulation - Ambrose writes: "Still, except for the questionable deduction for backdating the vice presidential papers, Nixon had done nothing illegal. It is not against the law to borrow money from your friends. Nor was Nixon the first president to profit from his association with millionaires." Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson did it, he notes. "But Nixon was the one who got caught."

Richard nixed

In ways small as well as large, the author provides a primer on the authentic Nixon in the White House for the Rip Van Winkles among us:

* Sending good wishes to a National Women's Political Caucus meeting while asking domestic policy aide John Ehrlichman: "Is it wise to throw pearls before swine?"

* Accusing television commentators in an interview of innuendo, leaks, "leers, and sneers," then adding: "which is their perfect right."

* On learning that there was no Dictabelt recording of a conversation for which a tape was "missing," Nixon suggests: "Why can't we make a new Dictabelt?"

* Counseling Dean: "Tell the truth. That is the one thing I have told everybody around here. Goddamn it, the truth."

* Suggesting to Haldeman and Ehrlichman that libel suits be filed against Dean and others, adding: "Use the most vicious libel lawyer there is."

Ah, how it all comes back. Nor did it end when Nixon was booted out of the White House. as Ambrose further notes:

* After assuring Ford he would not go to China before the 1976 election and risk drawing more attention to his pardon, Nixon goes anyway, claiming the Chinese insisted, which the author says Secretary of State Henry Kissinger knew was not true.

* Commenting on President Ford's observance of the bicentennial, during which he made many speeches, Nixon tells David Eisenhower that his successor should have made one major speech. "He should have said, a week before July Fourth, |Look. I'm going up to Camp David to work on this speech.' He didn't actually have to work on it. He could go swimming or do anything. Then he could have given it and he could have locked up the nomination right then [and] there. Or am I wrong?"

* Telling interviewer David Frost of aides Haldeman and Ehrlichman, whom he fired to deflect criticism from himself, "I can be faulted because I defended them too long. Maybe I tried to help them too much."

In other words, the same old Dick Nixon is still with us in all his disingenuousness. Yet Ambrose sees a new Nixon (what, another one?) in his candor, in telling another interviewer that while his comeback "has not been a deliberate program," he knows "Americans are crazy about renewal ... because they say. |What makes this guy tick?' They see me and they think, |He's come back' or |He's risen from the dead.'" Nixon's most "candid" moments, in fact, have come in his unintentional revelations about himself in such self-aggrandizing books as Six Crises and his more recent, rambling, and oft-times sophomoric In the Arena. He has never been able to resist explaining his own deviousness, apparently believing that doing so will make him appear all the more clever. If Ambrose is contending that there is much new about the surviving Nixon, he is not convincing.

The most valuable part of this book, nevertheless, is the chronicling, of Nixon's return from the political dead, in which Ambrose lays out the very calculation Nixon denies. He traces the comeback from Nixon's seeking safe turf in China and Kentucky for his post-Elba coming out, to the successful way in which he has insinuated himself into the nation's foreign policy dialogue - sometimes right, as when he observed in 1988 that "Eastern Europe today is ripe for positive peaceful change," and sometimes wrong, as when he predicted "the Soviet Union will do whatever is necessary - including a brutal military invasion - to suppress an insurgency seeking to liberate one of its satellites in Eastern Europe."

In the end, however, while confessing a developing admiration for Nixon in the course of writing this third volume of political biography on the man. Ambrose draws conclusions that should be read by those who think America was the ultimate loser when Nixon resigned. Of these, the author writes: "So many believed him that his version became the standard perception of Watergate. By 1990, people born after 1965 asked of Nixon. |What did he do that was so terrible?' They had read about Jack Kennedy and the womanizing. Bobby Kennedy and the wiretappping. Lyndon Johnson and his use of the FBI; they had lived through the Reagan administration and Iran-contra; they were living through and paying for the savings and loan scandal. No wonder they wanted to know what Nixon had done that was so terrible."

But Ambrose then renders his final judgment: "Nixon will never be called Richard the Great. He was a sometimes brilliant, frequently successful, often flawed leader, but never a great leader." He notes that Nixon, in writing of the true leaders he has known, noted that of all their admirable qualities, "virtue was not one of them." In this, Ambrose says, Nixon was dead wrong. Citing Heraclitus's observation that "a man's character is his fate." Ambrose says that Nixon "had nearly every gift that the gods could bestow. The one that he most lacked was character. Virtue comes from character. That is why Nixon despised virtue, and railed against it."

Power to Nixon Ambrose writes, "was manipulation, inside information, polls, favors, trade-offs, bribes, public relations, smears, and intimidation. Power was publicity rather than policy. Had Nixon engaged in public debate education and persuasion, he could have been a real president. As it is, he doesn't even rate as a good one. He is the only president who resigned his office, the only one forced to accept a pardon for his deeds. This will never be forgotten. Two hundred years from now he will get only a paragraph or two in a high school American history text, and the first sentence will begin: |Richard Nixon, 37th president, resigned his office because of the Watergate scandal.'"

That may be so, thus rendering wasted all of Nixon's relentless efforts to rewrite history. But the contemporary re-resurrection goes on, and don't be surprised if the Count Dracula of the Republican Party is back in the sunlight of forgiveness and acceptance at the GOP national convention in Houston next August. This prospect alone justifies the retelling of why Nixon was forced from office 17 years ago, and how he has come once again to haunt us. According to Ambrose, longtime Republican wise man Bryce Harlow once observed that if Nixon "ever had a heart attack, he would breathe into his own mouth and resuscitate himself." Who, after all this, scan doubt it?
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Author:Witcover, Jules
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1991
Previous Article:Divided We Govern.
Next Article:In Search of Excess: The Overcompensation of the American Executive.

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