Nixon in Winter , by Monica Crowley. Random House, 428 pages, $30.
Richard Nixon performed a Shakespearean lead in every American comedy-drama from the Cold War through Vietnam, dueling with Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, John F. Kennedy and Katharine Graham. But he ended his days exiled in New Jersey, playing Dr. Johnson to a Boswell named Monica Crowley, a perky 22-year-old college girl and Tricia Nixon look-alike. Ms. Crowley has just written a second volume of reminiscences, titled Nixon in Winter . It amplifies but adds little to the political record of her first book, Nixon Off the Record . That said, the new title is an often (possibly unintentionally) delightful account of her stint as Nixon’s girl Friday.
As a narrator, Ms. Crowley lets the boss get the laughs while she plays the straight man: “When I mentioned that even Democrats had to die, Nixon laughed. ‘Hard to believe, huh? They’d get out of that, too, if they could.'” Often she writes as if she’s a remote, hard-boiled Ned Beaumont noting political high jinks in Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. “Nixon dismissed [the media coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Watergate break-in] with a sharp wave of his hand. ‘They’ve had their fun and games. Take this down,'” he said, pointing to my writing pad. ‘I will not do anything again for The Washington Post, Newsweek , CBS, Koppel, and even … Gumbel …’ When I asked if he were creating a new enemies list, he laughed and replied, “Let me tell you something. All politicians, if they are effective and serious, have some kind of enemies list.”
Ms. Crowley’s most jaw-dropping scene concerns Nixon the Musician. Many Americans may have forgotten that Dick played the piano-although anyone who sees the video of him tickling the ivories almost 40 years ago on The Jack Parr Show will never forget it. Nixon leads Ms. Crowley to a piano after they learn that the Supreme Court has sided with him about keeping his Oval Office tapes private. “You sing, right?” he asks her. She confesses, “A little.” Then Nixon says, “O.K., you must know this one,” and starts playing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” What an insane scene-the elder Nixon banging away and singing with his Tricia stand-in! Ms. Crowley then allows herself a rare moment of tender observation, writing that when the former President played the piano, it was an “uninhibited example of the joy he so often denied himself.”
Did she fail to catch her boss’ mockery? Surely Nixon chose “Happy Days Are Here Again”-Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 theme song-as an ironic way to flip the bird to all the Democrats on his eternal enemies list.
Rumors have it that another Monica and her President had answering-machine phone sex. Our Monica’s answering machine was also used to strengthen a strange intimacy with her boss. She describes the old ex-President leaving hot messages like, “To give you a nightmare, I think Bush will back the Soviet peace plan.” Of course, it’s impossible to imagine Nixon ever hitting on Ms. Crowley. He gets as befuddled as an old maid after a cheerleader innocently sits in his lap. (“I felt like Gary Hart on the Monkey Business ! They might mistake me for Ted Kennedy! Oh, my God!”)
No, Nixon comes on to Monica more like a weird, uncomfortable Dad. “When you go to sleep tonight, remember this,” Nixon tells her. (What is it with Nixon’s bedtime thoughts?) “Presidents have some power; former Presidents have none!” Ms. Crowley describes the man waiting by the phone, hoping a President will ring. Will George Bush phone? (Not very often.) Clinton? (Yes!) Ms. Crowley portrays Nixon hacking out dozens of Op-Ed pieces as well as a few books in order to insure his role as American’s elder statesman. More than once, Nixon frets about global events-not for the world’s sake, but out of concern that his forthcoming book will be made obsolete on publication date. He spends hours daily reading The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report , as well as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Rousseau and … Nietzsche. “I can’t believe I’m missing my Nietzsche!” Nixon cries after misplacing his copy of Beyond Good and Evil . “I always try to look at his stuff during a Presidential campaign to remind me of why I went through the damn fire.”
That damn fire. In last year’s Crazy Rhythm , the memoir by ex-Nixon consultant Leonard Garment, Mr. Garment wrote, “Without Watergate, Nixon would likely have finished his term, floundered around as a depressed man in search of a crisis, and died earlier than he did.” Instead, Nixon was proof, as he said, that what does not destroy an ex-President makes him stronger. In Ms. Crowley’s remembrance, Nixon surveys his life and proclaims, “Struggle makes life. I’m for it.”
The former President confides in her about his political struggles, but she is rarely his confidant in personal ones. And the few times she is, the girl is too young to give much comfort. In a phone call placed after Pat Nixon’s death-remember that Nixon didn’t weep on camera during his resignation, but he bawled his heart out at his wife’s funeral-Nixon describes for Ms. Crowley his wife’s last moments before she slipped into a coma. His words are incredibly heartfelt, but sentiment isn’t her beat.
“Even Richard Nixon has got soul,” goes a vintage Neil Young song, but Nixon’s soul was too big a pumpkin for Ms. Crowley. Nixon, himself, might be comfortable yammering about God, the “death thing” and immortality, but in this book, Ms. Crowley’s only utterances are long bits of Republicanspeak, rhetoric that always mirrors Nixon’s Cold War mentality. Everything between them is Moscow, Moscow, Moscow; Beijing, Beijing, Beijing. The difference in their ages becomes apparent when Nixon explains the 1960’s to his young colleague. Ms. Crowley was born during the 1968 squabble between Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. She came of age under Ronald Reagan. Of course this girl is all ears when the wise old President informs her that “hippie hoodlums” prolonged the Vietnam War and the “kids” killed at Kent State ” were communists” and Watergate was only “a silly, silly thing.”
Ms. Crowley ends by showing that there’s even a Dick Nixon for Dick Nixon. It’s Halloween, and she describes the ex-President confronted by a trick-or-treater wearing a Richard Nixon mask. “Nixon jovially extended his hand to the alter ego and, without missing a beat, said, ‘Well, Mr. President, it’s a pleasure to meet you!'”
But which Nixon belongs to Ms. Crowley? Is he her mentor? Father figure? Fantasy lover? Whichever, he is definitely her meal ticket. And in exchange for that role, the elder statesman and classic manipulator of such formidable hatchet men as John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman and John Mitchell, played Monica beautifully.