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In Praise of Nixon

One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream by Tom Wicker Random House 731 pp., $24.95

SINCE he resigned in disgrace in August 1974, Richard Nixon has remained with us, tenaciously waging his last campaign. For more than 16 years, the former president has labored mightily to revise his history and refurbish his reputation. We have been subjected to recycled memoirs, carefully staged television interviews, Olympian pronunciamentos on politics and foreign policy, and the opening of a museum disguised as a library.

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Nixon has had no more valuable ally than the news media, despite popular beliefs that journalists have been his longtime enemies. When Nixon dedicated his museum in July 1990, the American media treated the event as if it were a Second Coming. Tom Brokaw gained an "exclusive" interview - no doubt because NBC News agreed to anchor its evening news from the museum - and tossed Nixon one fat pitch after another: "What would your mother have advised you during Watergate, Mr. President?" Whether as enemy or pliant tool, Nixon has regarded the media with contempt.

Tom Wicker's new book will lend Nixon great comfort and confirm his cynicism. Recanting his contemporary criticism, Wicker now finds Richard Nixon one of the great presidents, deserving mention in the same breath as Abraham Lincoln. Nixon, according to Wicker, was a man of great strategic vision, and while given to breaking the Constitution and the law on occasion, really is "one of us." Fittingly, William Safire, Wicker's colleague and onetime Nixon speech writer, has trumpeted this book as a "stunning reassessment." It is no such thing.

Avowedly revisionist, yet hardly new, Wicker slavishly follows the memoirs of Nixon and his immediate entourage. Wicker displays little familiarity with the available archival record. Roger Morris, a recent Nixon biographer, has added fresh details and insights on Nixon's initial campaign in 1946 that only darken Nixon's image further. But Nixon, Wicker writes, behaved like any other politician; he was "in a game the ethic of which is to win." What Wicker means, of course, is that "winning is the only t hing."

Wicker has spent long hours with such Nixon aides as domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman and has concluded that Nixon's domestic policies were spectacular. In his memoir/apologia, Ehrlichman advanced precisely the same idea.

A careful scrutiny of the Nixon domestic record will demonstrate more achievements than contemporary critics conceded, but something far short of the uniqueness claimed by his admirers. But Wicker has done little research, suspended all critical analysis, often relied on anonymous sources (for stories readily confirmed in documented records), and swallowed the Nixon line whole. Ehrlichman could not have said it better.

Nixon's record in foreign policy remains contested ground. The opening to China, of course, is unforgettable, however opportunistic or cynical it may have been. His oft-stated assertion that he would not be the first president to "lose" a war, followed by a "peace" settlement that allowed North Vietnam to maintain troops in the South and inevitably doomed our Saigon clients after a "decent interval," mocks the Nixon-Kissinger claims for the virtues of their Southeast Asia policy. Vietnamization and esca lation, Wicker recognizes, simply never had a chance of securing South Vietnam's independence. But he glides over the fraud and bankruptcy of the policy, and Nixon and Kissinger's subsequent distortions of the historical record.

Nixon, in his twilight years, has successfully promoted himself as America's Elder Statesman. Pretensions to a title do not prove the claim. Yet Wicker is determined, as if to expiate his guilt over past judgments, to enshrine Nixon in the nation's pantheon.

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Elder Statesman? Nixon, it should be remembered, opposed Reagan's nuclear weapons treaty with the Soviets in 1987 - Gorbachev's clearest signal that he no longer wished to participate in the superpower game. At the opening of his museum three years later, Nixon dismissed any idea of Germany and Japan as superpowers. "They don't have nuclear weapons," he said - as if atomic weapons are the sole currency for world power status.

Wicker evaluates Nixon along a familiar line: Like the rest of us, Nixon had better and worse sides. Wicker argues that Nixon represented the best within us when he decided not to challenge Kennedy's narrow victory in 1960 and when he bowed to the Supreme Court's decision ordering him to surrender the tapes in 1974.

Like Nixon and his men, Wicker contends that vote fraud in Illinois tarnished the Kennedy victory in 1960. But Illinois alone would not have overturned the result. The Republican-dominated Illinois election board duly certified Kennedy's victory, and recent scholarship minimizes the extent and effect of fraudulent ballots on the presidential race. Nixon had little to challenge; furthermore, he had no significant allies.

Surely, Wicker is not serious about 1974. Nixon desperately looked for "air" in the court's decision to avoid compliance. Just what alternatives existed? Republicans almost totally deserted Nixon, even after he complied. Imagine if he had not.

In anointing Nixon as "great," Wicker necessarily minimizes Watergate, more or less rationalizing the president's actions as something "everyone" did. Historians will not dismiss Watergate as lightly. Watergate is Nixon's tar baby, and his resignation has distinguished him from all his predecessors. That is his uniqueness. Nixon swore to uphold the Constitution and the law, "but," Wicker says, he "skirted it when he could, [and] that was American still."

"One of us," as Wicker contends? No, he was supposed to be better. He was, after all, the president.

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