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Nixon bio offers a sobering lesson despite detour into sensationalism

For a time, President Richard M. Nixon personified a grave threat to the American republic, maybe the most profound threat ever to occupy the White House. But that's debatable. History reminds us we've elected a few dandies among the many high-minded, dedicated public servants to our highest office.

Nixon's dark side was peopled by the demons of self-doubt and paranoia, coupled with a vengeful drive not only to succeed at all costs, but to annihilate his enemies along the way.

It is well documented that when the going got tough, Nixon turned to alcohol, and it is just as well documented that when spirits ran through his veins, he let down his guard and morphed into that nasty, prejudiced, foul-mouthed type of drunk we all have seen at a tailgate party near One Bills Drive.

All of this made Nixon an execrable custodian of the most powerful office on earth.

We all know how the Nixon story played out. Even so, it does some good to remind ourselves from time to time what can happen in our form of government when we let down our vigilance, when we put too much trust in what we think we see on that flickering screen in our living rooms, and when we choose to shoot the messenger, the bearer of bad tidings we wish not to believe.

Freelance writer and former radio journalist Don Fulsom is not satisfied with the grim and sinister portrait that has been painted of our 37th president in the nearly four decades since Nixon resigned in disgrace.

In "Nixon's Darkest Secrets," Fulsom emphasizes allegations which although not entirely new, have seldom taken on the prominence they have been given in this work.

Many of the most damning revelations, which fall under the general definition of sensationalism, are said to be based on newly released documents and tapes. But what the reader often finds at the end of the argument are flimsy proofs of old allegations, based on questionable sources.

This is not to imply Richard Nixon is a wronged saint. It is merely to say the man had so many recognized faults -- a history of so many horrific deeds -- that piling on questionable allegations only weakens his case for demonization.

Foremost among Fulsom's "darkest secrets" is that Nixon was a "repressed homosexual" whose public homophobic statements were nothing but a coverup for his true inner feelings.

Much is made of a report that he was seen holding hands under the table with longtime friend and financial benefactor Bebe Rebozo, and that he once was observed with his arm over Rebozo's shoulder in "a cuddling" fashion. As further proof, Fulsom quotes multiple sources to make the case that Nixon "certainly never showed his wife, Pat, the affection he showed Bebe Rebozo -- in public or in private." One is left to wonder how the author was able to judge the Nixons' private relationship.

Of course, Fulsom's Nixon was a wife-beater. Many suspected it and were willing to share their suspicions with our author. Nixon was known to take a punch at a reporter or aide at times, so certainly Pat must not have been immune from his brutish temper flare-ups.

Much more damning are the allegations that Nixon sabotaged peace talks with the Vietnamese for political gain, and clearly that action went beyond a dirty trick. It reached the level of treason against the United States government.

"Treason" was the word allegedly used in private by a furious President Lyndon Johnson, who, it is said, chose never to share that fact with the American public for the good of the nation. Besides, Nixon might have been able to implicate Johnson in the JFK assassination conspiracy because Nixon himself might have been tangentially involved. Nixon did have ties to Frank Sinatra and everyone knows Sinatra was a mobster, and the mob hated JFK's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

And so it goes. Nixon received large quantities of campaign money from a Las Vegas gambling source. (Obviously, this book was written before the current campaign season.)

As president, Nixon put out a contract on the life of muckraker Jack Anderson, but someone in the White House with a cooler head prevailed and put the kibosh on that deal. Anderson himself is among the sources for that story: "Anderson went to his grave ... convinced ... 'Richard Nixon wanted me dead.' "

Hardly a conspiracy theory pinged Fulsom's antennas that didn't somehow have its roots in the Nixon White House. And often, Hamburg native E. Howard Hunt or G. Gordon Liddy, two experienced and expert liars, were its primary sources. Fulsom, to his credit, alludes to Hunt's life being led right on the edge between reality and fantasy.

Fulsom spices up his quick moving narrative with such classic broadcastese as: "Mobbed-up loopy Howard Hughes," "Mafia-cozy" Rebobo, and "sprung him from the slammer."

At some point along this journey, Fulsom's portrait of Nixon ceases to be paint on canvas and becomes a poster, two-dimensional and single-toned. The whole body of extra-Constitutional actions undertaken by and for this seriously flawed president is overshadowed by the sensational.

Yet, for all its warts, "Nixon's Darkest Secrets" is not without redeeming qualities. It reminds the reader how criminal activity can be disguised behind the banner of personal liberty. It recounts how thugs, acting with the real or perceived power of the presidency, can operate just outside the public fishbowl of the White House.

It confirms the man the American people place in the Oval Office has at his fingertips nearly unlimited power. Only the much-maligned Congress and Supreme Court -- some foolishly would call them anachronisms of the 18th century -- serve as his governors.

The American people are by nature trusting, accepting and unusually forgiving. So it behooves us to take the greatest care -- demand the greatest scrutiny -- before handing over to one man or woman the collective might of our nation.

This lesson is worth retelling and retelling, even if the retelling gets a little flawed at times.

Edward Cuddihy is the retired Buffalo News managing editor.

> NONFICTION

Nixon's Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America's Most Troubled President

By Don Fulsom

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's

292 pages, $25.99