There are not-crooks, and then there are not-crooks.
Richard Nixon carried that famously self-proclaimed status to the grave. How long Conrad Black will keep it is for a federal jury to decide. The Canadian media tycoon is currently on trial in Chicago on multiple counts of fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. Lord Black alludes to that litany of charges (the last two of which carry a nice whiff of Watergate) in the acknowledgments to his massive, muscular and somewhat demented life of the 37th President. With uncharacteristic delicacy, he mentions his “very distracting circumstances” and “serious judicial problems.” Being charged with criminal behavior is not the worst preparation for the Nixon biographer.
In writing about Nixon, Lord Black joins a very long line of predecessors. All Presidents are worthy of our attention—but some better repay that attention. It’s often preferable that a President not be all that compelling (witness the genuine feeling displayed in so many of the tributes offered Gerald Ford last December). Certainly, Nixon would have been better off—the country and world, too—if he hadn’t had the unique ability to be both bull and toreador in a blood sport largely of his own making. But he did, and in a sense still does: Frost/Nixon is the toughest Broadway ticket of the season, and now we have this quartet of new books.
As Presidential subjects go, not even Nixon can compare to Franklin Roosevelt. Lord Black’s previous book was a biography of F.D.R. This makes him doubly suited to write about Nixon. Criminality helped end Nixon’s Presidency; Roosevelt helped drive it. He was the President under whom Nixon came of political age and, as such, the one Nixon measured himself against. For all that he had highly charged relationships with several other Presidents—Truman, who loathed him; Eisenhower, who elevated him; Kennedy, who defeated him; Ford, whom he elevated—it was the relationship with F.D.R. that did the most to form him.
“Relationship,” at least in the interpersonal sense, may be the last word ever associated with Richard Nixon. He was the Melvillean “isolato” as most powerful man in the world. Richard Reeves knew exactly what he was doing when he chose the subtitle for his fine study President Nixon: Alone in the White House. Yet it’s a relationship that defines Robert Dallek’s exhaustive Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, which concerns itself with the most important relationship of Nixon’s Presidency—and very likely the most singular between any President and subordinate in U.S. history. A far different relationship concerns Jules Witcover in Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short and Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. If Mr. Dallek’s book is a tragedy of global proportions, Mr. Witcover’s verges on lugubrious comedy as it details the now largely forgotten pas de deux between not-crook President and nolo contendere Vice President.
Elizabeth Drew’s Richard M. Nixon has a good deal about Nixon’s dealings with both men, of course. Her book is part of the American Presidents Series, edited by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. When Nixon lived in New York in the early 80’s, his townhouse backed onto Schlesinger’s. Strange things like that kept happening to Nixon. (When he moved to New York in the early 60’s, the apartment he bought was in the same building as Nelson Rockefeller’s.) He had a stunning propensity for the bizarre, something Ms. Drew wastes no time acknowledging. She begins her book thusly: “Richard Milhous Nixon was an improbable President.” That sentence is indicative of her restrained, nicely compressed style. That style is also rather gray, though she does have the occasional purple patch. Sometimes the purple justifies itself. “Nixon’s tumultuous presidency,” she writes, “was for those of us who lived through it the most riveting of our lifetimes, and, perhaps, in all of American history.” Other times, she just gets carried away. The members of the House Judiciary Committee, Ms. Drew declares, “rose to the task before them and some of them became giants—it seemed at times akin to the Founding Fathers—though in most cases and under other circumstances they were actually not even close to that stature.”