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Nixon Pleads His Case

New memoir is revealing, but don't expect disclosures on Watergate

`IN THE ARENA,'' Richard Nixon's eighth book, is a personal memoir, of interest for what it adds to our understanding of a man who has indeed been at the very center of the American political arena for over 40 years. Its focus is not on programs and policies, or other leaders, or the flow of great events, but almost solely on Nixon himself. Middle-aged Americans, such as this reviewer, whose entire political lifetimes have been dominated by Nixon-centered events, from the Hiss case on, are unlikely to read this memoir with jaws locked open in amazement. We have seen so many acts of the drama played out, heard so much of the moralizing, read so many accounts that have purported to seek ``the real Nixon.'' But even we of the ``Nixon generation'' will learn more about our principal from a few hours spent ``in the arena.''

We will not, however, learn more about the events known as ``Watergate'' - because there is virtually nothing more to learn. We know exactly what happened, and why. We've made up our minds. And, long before this latest memoir, we knew what Nixon thought about Watergate - the scope and limits of his own errors, the opportunities it provided his opponents, and the immense toll it took on him.

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Perhaps Watergate still ``sells.'' Time magazine plainly thinks so. It drew its entire 5,000-word excerpt from ``In the Arena'' from Nixon's obligatory discussion of the saga, even though the bulk of the book deals with other matters. Nonetheless, the memoir adds nothing new on Watergate. What it does is subtly round out our picture of a man.

People who devote their lives to electoral politics are supposed to be outgoing and gregarious. Nixon, though, certainly wasn't. He was brought up by ``inner directed'' bourgeois parents, who by example taught him to see the self as a very private preserve. In his new memoir, Nixon recalls how, before the 1960 campaign, ``President Eisenhower suggested that it would be very effective if I were to refer to God more in my speeches.'' But though Nixon came from an intensely religious upbringing - where attending four separate services each Sunday was common - he was given to see religious beliefs as something not to be paraded about.

In general, it was unnatural, even phony, to talk about deep feelings. Doing is what matters. ``My mother sacrificed everything for her children...,'' Nixon writes, but ``in her whole life I never heard her say to me or to anyone else, `I love you.' She did not need to.''

At times, a softie

Nixon refers to the observation of the great 19th-century British leader, William Gladstone, that the first requisite of a prime minister is to be a ``good butcher.'' But Nixon was simply terrible as a butcher. His sympathies were all with the unfortunate animal - something he constantly revealed when in the arena and now writes about. Once again in his memoir he returns to his deep admiration/disapproval relationship with Dwight Eisenhower. Ike had a great smile but was in fact ``a cold and when necessary even ruthless executive,'' Nixon writes. This was useful, indeed perhaps essential, in a leader, Nixon recognizes, but nonetheless unsatisfactory in a human being.

Long depicted as the ultimate pragmatist, and attacked for allegedly being an amoral manipulator - the fabled ``Tricky Dick'' - Nixon has instead seen himself a partisan of high principles and has sought recognition in terms of these ideals. Anti-communism has been warranted, he writes, ``as a profoundly moral cause.'' A leader can reach greatness only if he's animated by high moral purpose. The US will founder ``if it runs out of leaders who are willing to risk their standing ... by doing or saying what they believe is right, whether or not it is popular.''

Captialism is amoral

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Capitalism is not a moral system; it's amoral. It receives justification only by enlarging the pie and extending individual choice. Gaining wealth is vastly insufficient as an end, either for individuals or nations. The US will fail if it takes as a standard ``simply attaining the highest per capita GNP.'' Nixon endorses Nietzche's strictures ``against the day when secular, rationalistic values would triumph,'' and his warning ``against what he called the `last man,' a creature totally obsessed with security and comfort and incapable of throwing himself into a higher cause.''

The political ideals Nixon espouses are those of the country's founders, which he discusses in the best chapter of this memoir, ``Philosophy.'' ``They understood the world in which they lived,'' Nixon writes, ``an imperfect world, inhabited by imperfect people - and sought to build a form of government that would provide for security and stability and foster prosperity. The lodestar of their idealism was the concept of liberty. They wanted to build a solid structure that would survive after they were gone.'' Much that is essential for the good must be achieved outside the state. In particular, ``America must develop institutions that cultivate an appreciation of the spiritual dimension of life that the founders wisely put outside of politics.''

Supporters and critics differ, of course, on the question of whether Richard Nixon served the goals to which he was committed. That debate can't be advanced, much less settled, here. But however one feels about it, Nixon's image of himself, founded on these ideals, has left him enormously vulnerable when charged with being a conniving, self-serving politician.

A businessman who sets out to cut every corner to amass a fortune is unlikely to be deeply wounded if he is publicly branded as greedy and selfish. But one who sees himself part of an enterprise which, while meeting his personal needs handsomely, can be justified only if it serves the common good, will be devastated and embittered. This was, for example, the experience of Henry Ford.

In politics, it has been the experience of Richard M. Nixon. ``In the Arena'' is the plea of a man frustrated and wounded by the refusal of so many of his fellow citizens, especially those in the intellectual community, to see him as one who has tried to serve the republic by advancing large moral ends.

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