'One Man Against the World' is a dark and troubling portrait of Richard Nixon
The second big Nixon book this summer (after "Being Nixon" by Evan Thomas) paints an unforgiving picture of a deeply flawed man and president.
On October 11, 1973, one day after Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president, of the United States, the following conversation took place between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, the deputy national security advisor.
“The switchboard just got a call from 10 Downing Street to inquire whether the President would be available for a call within 30 minutes from the Prime Minister,” Scowcroft said during his phone conversation with the secretary of state. “The subject would be the Middle East.”
Kissinger answered Scowcroft’s question with another question. “Can we tell them no?” he asked. “When I talked to the President he was loaded.”
At the time of their conversation, the Yom Kippur War between Israel and an alliance of Arab nations led by Egypt and Syria was less than a week old. The president, of course, was Richard Nixon, whose second term would end 10 months later in August 1974, less than halfway through his second term.
Again and again, Nixon suffers from exhaustion, insomnia, and drunkenness, enhanced and exacerbated by a lifelong low threshold for alcohol and constant fatigue.
Tim Weiner, a former New York Times reporter, has sifted through a trove of newly released tapes and documents to expand on earlier accounts of Nixon’s doomed presidency. Weiner previously wrote well-received books detailing the histories of the CIA and the FBI – an ideal foundation for delving into the endless rabbit hole of Watergate, secret White House tapes, and the numerous episodes of illegal wiretapping and political tricks employed by (sorry, had to say it) all the president’s men.
One Man Against the World is one of two significant additions to the Nixon library this summer. Evan Thomas’ “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” (reviewed by The Monitor in July) considered the 37th president through the lens of his warring selves: the reckless, corrupt, win-at-all costs paranoid politician versus the erudite global strategist with a penchant for scrawling noble goals on legal pads in the wee hours of the morning.
Thomas at times gives Nixon too much benefit of the doubt, deploring the anti-Semitic, racist, and other crude remarks found on the White House tapes while often dismissing them as bluster. Weiner goes to the opposite extreme, always ascribing the worst possible motives to Nixon’s character.
What makes the argument against Weiner’s condemnation difficult to rebut are the many transcripts and documents the author uses to make his case. For those younger than the Baby Boomers, who either didn’t live through these dark days or were too young to remember or recognize those tumultuous events, the sheer lunacy of those years is sobering.
Attorneys general coming and going like NFL coaches; a Saturday Night Massacre that finds the president illegally dumping the Watergate special prosecutor and top Justice Department officials; and, among many other self-incriminating revelations, taped conversations ordered by Nixon himself that include the president openly discussing slush funds, cover-ups and perjury. Read enough of this and one might long for more presidential debates with Donald Trump.
The sheer tonnage of bad news and crippling controversies beginning in 1972 – the break-in at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic party headquarters occurred in June – snowballed after Nixon won re-election in November. FBI deputy Mark Felt, the man revealed decades later to be the secret government source known as “Deep Throat” in Washington Post stories by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, was among those in the federal government so repulsed by the White House that he was willing to take on a president.
Throughout the ordeal, Nixon raged at perceived enemies in Congress, in the media, and in the federal government. He went to China, yes, but he also presided over ultimately failed summits with the Soviets, signing arms-reduction treaties that, in fact, spurred the arms race. With Kissinger, Nixon tried and failed for years to end the Vietnam War, presiding over fruitless negotiations while overseeing illegal bombings in Cambodia.
When, at last, Nixon managed to secure the release of 591 prisoners of war, he hosted them and their families on the White House lawn in May of 1973.
Even then, he gave in to baser instincts, telling the POWs in his remarks, “And let me say, I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspapers.”
Fourteen months later, he resigned in disgrace. He lived 20 more years, publishing lengthy books on diplomacy and geopolitical strategy and scrambling to recover some sense of dignity. If the more favorable but still damning portrait by Thomas represents the best chance for Nixon’s rehabilitation, Weiner’s book is, no doubt, the portrait Nixon hoped to avoid.
The tragedy of Richard Nixon, all these years later, remains sad and disturbing.