“A politician . . . one that would circumvent God.”
—William Shakespeare

In preparing my review of this riveting biography, I gathered samples of what has recently been written about Richard M. Nixon, and I must say they make a bewildering collection. Here are a few:

“A monster of a million disguises.” Andrew Kopkind, the Nation.

“A chief executive who had gone off the rails.” The Economist.

” . . . a visionary along the lines of a Woodrow Wilson.” Robert Scheer, the Nation.

” . . . the most innovative and successful foreign policy president of the 20th century.” Jonathan Aitken, The Economist.

” . . . one of the most hated—perhaps the single most hated—of the political figures in the United States over the past half century.” Thomas Sowell, Forbes magazine.

” . . . he earned the special affection and admiration of U.S. conservatism without even significantly advancing their cause.” William Buckley, National Review.

” . . . Nixon probably produced the most deft and creative foreign policy performance by a president in this century.” U.S. News.

” . . . [he built] appeasement . . . into detente. . . . ” Theodore Draper, Commentary, 1976.

In three presidential elections—1960, 1968, 1972—Nixon received more ballots than anyone else in American history: 113 million. For trivia aficionados, this item: in 42 years, Nixon got 56 Time and 54 Newsweek magazine covers. In his 20 years of exile, he wrote nine bestsellers and achieved a global status that no other living ex-President—Bush, Carter, Ford, or Reagan—can begin to match. On the other hand, he picked in 1968 a bribe-taker for the vice presidency, one who later pleaded guilty to federal income tax evasion. In 1960, he had offered the vice presidential nomination to Nelson Rockefeller; when Rockefeller turned it down, he gave the nomination to Henry Cabot Lodge. A bad track record on vice presidential candidates for so experienced a politician.

Let me confuse the Nixon image even more. Recall the 1960 presidential election in which John F. Kennedy received 34.2 million (49.7 percent) and Nixon 34.1 million (49.6 percent) votes. The margin between the two candidates was 112,881, less than one-tenth of one percent of the total. There was evidence of electoral fraud in Illinois, Texas, New Mexico, and Missouri. Despite the evidence, Nixon rejected the advice of friends and allies to demand a recount. In the event, his inaction gave the election result a legitimacy it would have lacked if he had demanded a recount. Tom Wicker wrote these long-forgotten sentences in the New York Times: “Nobody knows to this day whom the American people really elected President in 1960. Under the prevailing system John F. Kennedy was inaugurated but it was not at all clear if this was really the will of the people, or, if so, by what means and margin that will was expressed.”

In reading the Aitken biography I made no deliberate attempt to compare it with previous biographies, such as the three volumes by Stephen E. Ambrose. This book is unique because Nixon gave the author, a British M.P., 60 hours of interviews and opened up private archives, letters and diaries, personal and family papers for his unrestricted use. No other biographer had such access, including 155 interviews with almost everybody who was ever involved with Nixon. This is biography not hagiography, although Aitken makes no attempt to conceal his admiration for Nixon. Interestingly, there is one person whom he did not interview —Henry Kissinger. Why not? The author, who is biting in his assessment of the former Secretary of State, does not explain this singular omission from his list of interviewees.

The overwhelming—and probably unanswerable—question that emerges from his massive tome is this: How could somebody as smart as Nixon have so shafted himself as to end up in disgrace, the only President in our history who resigned rather than face impeachment and probable removal from office? There can be no question that had Nixon opened up after the arrest of the Watergate burglars in 1972 instead of participating in the coverup, or had he destroyed the incriminating tapes as soon as the cancer on the presidency began to metastasize, he would have served out his second term. So why didn’t he do either? Was there something in Nixon’s character that drove him to make colossal errors, allowing a nincompoop like John Dean to act as counsel to the President of the United States? Appointing to the Supreme Court two judges who couldn’t possibly have won a Senate confirmation vote and then ending up with Harry Blackmun as the compromise? Permitting the Daniel Ellsberg burglary? Ordering the CIA to block an FBI probe into Watergate? Running a losing race for governor of California?

Aitken, who knew Nixon from 1966 on, talks about “dark corners” in Nixon’s mental world, the “dark” side of his nature, a man who followed his “worst instincts.” He says Kissinger “knew how to exploit Nixon’s darker nature because he had one of his own.” Aitken comes very close to blaming the former Secretary of State for Nixon’s downfall. He indicts Kissinger for maintaining Nixon’s confidence in him “by dubious methods . . . pandering to Nixon’s worst instincts with cunning sycophancy.” Nixon was so troubled by Kissinger’s mood swings that he “at one stage considered whether this National Security Adviser should seek psychiatric care.”

Matters got so bad between them that Nixon told Charles Colson to order the Secret Service to tap Kissinger’s calls. There is a remarkable piece of dialogue when Colson reports to the President the contents of a Kissinger phone call to Joseph Kraft. Aitken believes that what saved Kissinger from dismissal was Watergate. Yet on page 520, he reports that in his pre-resignation conferences with Vice President Ford, Nixon “emphasized that Henry Kissinger was indispensable as Secretary of State” (italics added). Go figure.

Aitken recounts that Kissinger was ready to resign at the height of the Watergate scandal after Nixon appointed General Alexander Haig to succeed H.R. Haldeman as White House Chief of Staff. Kissinger took umbrage at the idea of having to report to Haig, his former assistant, and arranged to see Nixon to hand in his resignation. Before Kissinger entered the Oval Office, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary, delivered a diatribe to the Secretary of State that ended with this line: “For once in your life, Henry, just behave like a man.” Kissinger entered the Oval Office and never mentioned resignation.

Who was “Deep Throat,” the highly placed individual who told all to the Washington Post team of Woodward and Bernstein? It is remarkable in a capital city where nothing is a secret for more than a day that the identity of this informer is still a question. What does Aitken think? Here I will insist that, because of the many interviews Nixon granted him, Aitken’s theories are also Nixon’s theories. Aitken focuses his Deep Throat hypothesis on one of the unsolved mysteries of the Watergate drama: the 18 and one-half minute gap in the White House tapes that Ms. Woods was transcribing. Only six people had known of the erasure when Deep Throat leaked the story about “deliberate erasures” to the Woodstein duo. The six were: Nixon; Ms. Woods; Haig; Fred Buzhardt, White House counsel; Steve Bull, who replaced Alexander Butterfield, the man who told the Senate investigators about the White House taping system; and Haig’s deputy, Major General John C. Bennett. Eliminate the first two—Nixon and Woods—since they wouldn’t leak stories about themselves. That leaves four possible Washington Post informants. Libel laws and lack of definite proof prevent Aitken from voicing his—or Nixon’s—suspicion. I have long been persuaded that in actual fact there is no one Deep Throat but several persons whom Woodstein have elided into a single individual to prevent any personal identification.

Little space remains for a discussion of Nixon’s foreign and domestic policies, and there isn’t much good to say about any of them, despite Aitken’s Cheeryble-like attitude. On the domestic scene, Nixon talked conservative while pursuing politics that would have done Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton proud—wage and price controls in peacetime and the expansion of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social programs, family assistance, affirmative action orders, budgetary deficits, etc. As for foreign policy, with the fall of the Soviet Empire the subject may be moot, since all sides in the debate can claim credit for the unexpected achievement. There is no question in my mind that Nixon’s detente amounted to appeasement of the Soviet Union, of communist China—and of the Council on Foreign Relations and similarly minded American liberals.

Perhaps the last word ought to be given to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, now back in his Russian homeland. Critical of detente, he identified what he called the “Kissinger syndrome,” whereby “individuals, while holding high office, pursue a policy of appeasement and capitulation . . . but immediately upon retirement the scales fall from their eyes and they begin to advocate firmness and resolution. How can this be? What caused the change? Enlightenment just doesn’t come that suddenly! Might we not assume that they were well aware of the real state of affairs all along, but simply drifted with the political tide, clinging to their posts?”


[Nixon: A Life, by Jonathan Aitken (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing) 633 pp., $28.00]