Nixon’s Still the One

Nothing was more improbable about Nixon’s Presidency than his partnership with Henry Kissinger. The two men did great and lasting things together, also ghastly and inexplicable things. Squabbling and scheming, they tried to turn the making of U.S. foreign policy into their own personal prerogative, a secret society of two—and, for a time, effectively succeeded. It was folie a deux masquerading as Realpolitik. Their collaboration has been much written about. What distinguishes Mr. Dallek’s book is how extensively he’s drawn on the vast archive these two otherwise most secretive of men left: not just documents but also Nixon’s tapes and Mr. Kissinger’s transcripts of his telephone conversations. Although Mr. Dallek frequently acknowledges their great foreign-policy strengths and the often-impressive results that came of them, the overall portrait is damning in the extreme. Both men display a degree of duplicity, deviousness and personal instability that would seem utterly implausible—except for the overwhelming evidence of it they presented against themselves.

An oddity of Mr. Dallek’s book is that throughout it he refers to Mr. Kissinger as “Henry.” Lord Black, whose tone is that of a man on a first-name basis with the Deity, does not indulge in such familiarity. That’s one of the few indulgences he doesn’t allow himself in The Invincible Quest. He has an often-hilarious weakness for extraneous information and weirdly pedantic parentheticals. Having brought up the all-but-nonexistent possibility that Lyndon Johnson might have declined the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1964, Lord Black points out that his Presidency would have been in that case “the third shortest in history, after William H. Harrison and James A. Garfield.” Or, after quoting Nixon’s 1965 warning that a North Vietnamese victory would mean “The Pacific will become a Red Sea,” Lord Black offers the useful clarification: “He meant ideologically, not geographically.”

Lord Black (one keeps wanting to call him “Lord Copper”) also has a penchant for dumbfounding obiter dicta. Had Ike not chosen to run for re-election, he declares, Nelson Rockefeller—who had yet to hold any elective office—was Nixon’s “only plausible rival” for the nomination. Replacing John Foster Dulles with Nixon as Secretary of State “would have been a brilliant appointment.” Or if, rather than resigning, “Nixon had mounted a fighting defense on the facts, the animosity of most of the press, the hypocrisy of many of the Democrats, and the precedent of former presidents, he might have clawed his way back to a chance of finishing his term.” Lord Black neglects to add that Pat Nixon was Marie of Romania.

Still, he can bring the reader up short with a startling insight—or, rather, he does so frequently, and every once in a while for the right reasons. There’s a jarring brilliance to his noting “the dark, ironic, recondite cynicism that was often one of [Nixon’s] most attractive qualities.” The man is nothing if not a lively writer, and his prose often achieves a kind of loony splendor. In noting the replacement of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s delegation to the 1972 Democratic convention, Lord Black describes Jesse Jackson as a “rutting panther of an African-American nonconformist clergyman and racial militant.” The subject of the 1960’s excites in him a goatish sententiousness. “Oral contraception vastly facilitated premarital sex among young people, relieving their ancient risks and frustrations, and leading to a great deal of sexual exhibitionism, much of it agreeable to most people—thigh-high skirts and exiguous coverage of the most erogenous female areas.”

As a phrasemaker, Lord Black could have taught even Spiro Agnew a thing or two. That’s no small tribute. Hard to believe though it may now seem, such Agnew sound bites as “effete corps of impudent snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism” briefly made him the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee in 1976 and a cynosure of American conservatism. (Ronald Reagan? He was the guy who’d raised taxes in California and made abortion legal there.) Nixon enjoyed the benefit of his rhetorical muscle-flexing, but quickly realized what an unimpressive No. 2 he’d saddled himself with.

That unimpressiveness colors Very Strange Bedfellows. There’s little Mr. Witcover can do to make Agnew interesting or his career seem other than grimly absurd. Soon enough, Nixon began scheming to unburden himself of Agnew. Quoting a White House tape, Mr. Witcover describes Nixon calling up Presidential counsel John Dean to find out what the 25th Amendment says about the naming of a new Vice President. Ever cagey, Nixon didn’t want Mr. Dean to infer why he was interested. “[O]ne of my daughters is doing a paper,” he explained. At least he didn’t say King Timahoe had eaten her homework.

Mark Feeney is the author of Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief (University of Chicago Press).

Nixon’s Still the One