During his long career, Richard Nixon was often referred to as "Tricky Dick," but at the end of his life he was remarkably successful in creating the image of an honored elder statesman. In this latest volume in a series of presidential biographies, Elizabeth Drew, a veteran Washington observer and author, provides new material that, in its overall impact, supports the original image.
She says that, while a "treasure trove" of new information has emerged in recent years, the requirement of brevity in the series forced her to get to what I saw as his essence." She concludes that Nixon was one of our most complex presidents: insecure, self-pitying, vindictive, suspicious -- even literally paranoid. He was, however, exceptionally smart.
The author covers the familiar story of Nixon's boyhood poverty, his struggle to excel, his efforts to become "one of the guys" and his election campaigns, which, she says, were "at the outer edge of opportunism and savageness." She hails Nixon's striking success in opening ties with China and promoting detente with Moscow, especially in view of the Cold War atmosphere of the time. But his supposed "secret plan" to end the Vietnam war merely extended the conflict for another four to five years.
This generally dark view of Nixon might have been brightened, if only slightly, by a few details mentioned in earlier biographies. Jonathan Aitken, in his 1993 book, cited Nixon's religious side, saying that he knelt to pray at his bedside throughout his life. And at law school, a disabled fellow student used to wait at the entrance day after day until Nixon arrived to carry him up the steps.
During his vice presidency, Nixon's drinking came to the attention of President Eisenhower, and when Nixon visited Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, Eisenhower sent his brother, Milton, along to keep an eye on him. Milton reported that Nixon had "about six" martinis before one dinner and became quite vulgar. The effect of the alcohol may have been enhanced by Nixon's use of an anti-anxiety drug. His aides often noted his slurred speech, and Henry Kissinger used to refer to him as "our drunken friend" and "a basket case."
When the Nixon tapes were revealed in the Watergate investigation, Nixon's foul language and bigotry shocked the public -- possibly even more than the illegalities disclosed. He referred to Kissinger as "my Jew-boy" and, in a sign of paranoia, thought Jews might be rigging the unemployment numbers. He ordered an aide to find out how many Jews there were in the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The author calls Nixon the "most peculiar and haunted of presidents" and concludes that there is "large room for doubt" that he was fit for the highest office in the land.
Norman Rowlinson is a retired editorial writer at The News.
Richard M. Nixon
By Elizabeth Drew
Times Books, 187 pages, $22