CRF Blog

The Disaster of Richard Nixon

by Bill Hayes

In The Disaster of Richard Nixon for the New York Review of Books, Robert G. Kaiser reviews the following books: Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas; Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection by Ken Hughes; Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball; and One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner.

Is Nixon’s historical reputation doomed forever? These books suggest that it is. Evan Thomas’s highly readable Being Nixon is, inadvertently, the most persuasive. Thomas set out to write a sympathetic account of Nixon’s life. He is persistently empathetic to his subject, but he is also a fine reporter and biographer (of Robert F. Kennedy, Edward Bennett Williams, John Paul Jones, and others). The good reporter gives his readers so many details of Nixon’s bad behavior that Thomas’s intention to write a sympathetic account collapses under the weight of its own facts. You can feel sorry for Nixon as a human being after reading Thomas’s book, but it is much harder to excuse his repeated transgressions — of ethical standards, of the law, of democratic values — and his quite abject reliance on alcohol and drugs. Thomas bends over too far in his effort to forgive Nixon’s misdeeds, particularly his Vietnam disaster and his ugly racial politics.

The other books in this collection of recent works are openly hostile to Nixon (Tim Weiner and Ken Hughes) or subtly devastating (William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball). Weiner, a former New York Times reporter and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, focuses on Vietnam and Watergate; he uses many of the most recently released tape transcripts and documents to give his version of these familiar stories new energy and salience, but his well-paced narratives of both stories don’t break much new ground. Hughes, a good researcher but inelegant writer who has been studying the Nixon tapes since 2000 at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, doesn’t hide his personal anger at Nixon and Kissinger for prolonging the Vietnam War when, according to the evidence of the tapes, they realized it couldn’t be won. He indicts them for sacrificing tens of thousands of American lives and over a million Asian ones to a lost cause. But Hughes oversimplifies when he claims that, almost entirely owing to political calculations, the war had to continue beyond November 1972, or Nixon could not win reelection. Burr and Kimball make more nuanced use of the same material.

Vietnam was the defining issue of Nixon’s presidency, as he knew it would be. Months before he became president, Nixon assured H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, his closest aide, that “I’m not going to end up like LBJ, Bob, holed up in the White House, afraid to show my face on the street. I’m going to stop that war. Fast.” Antiwar protesters had driven Lyndon Johnson into early retirement, which allowed Nixon to become president. Nixon played to the country’s war weariness in his 1968 campaign, implying that he had a plan to end the war.

But he had no plan. Ironically, even before he took office Nixon personally sabotaged an opportunity he might have had to avoid Johnson’s fate. The books under review suggest that this is one of the stories that will continue to stain Nixon’s reputation. [more]