From the July 1990 issue of Chronicles.
This temperate and thorough book commences with a detailed description of President Nixon’s activities on May 8 and 9, 1970, when thousands of young people had poured into Washington to protest the American expedition into Cambodia. This was the most dramatic of the several crises in Richard Nixon’s life. As Dr. Parmet writes, “Nixon’s postmortem account of those agitated days conveyed a detachment that can variously be described as offering brave, strong, determined leadership; or, to critics, a presidential response that was indifferent and insensitive to the rebellions tearing the nation he had vowed to reunite.”
This reviewer can attest that the former description, not the latter, is the truth of the matter. For I spent nearly an hour, late in the afternoon of that Friday, May 8, conversing with Mr. Nixon in the White House, privately—a meeting unmentioned by Herbert Parmet, although elsewhere he describes the correspondence between Richard Nixon and Russell Kirk.
On that fateful afternoon President Nixon did not discuss at all the frantic demonstrations being held in the capital’s streets as we talked. Cool as the center seed of a cucumber, he took up with me, instead, such concerns as whether America might be decadent; from what sources any President might obtain support when he must make some unpopular decision; and the seriousness of the environmental problems. Presently he said, “Dr. Kirk, have we any hope?” For emphasis, he repeated the question: “Have we any hope?”
Feeling rather like Chateaubriand consulted by Louis XVIII on the future of his regime, I endeavored (unlike Chateaubriand on that occasion) to encourage the President, pointing out that periods of decay and of renewal often alternate in a nation’s history, and mentioning at some length the course of the Byzantine system. Hope feeds on hope, I suggested: it is all a matter of popular conviction and popular action. Mr. Nixon’s spirits appeared to respond: so he always had believed, he told me. Throughout our talk—which had been arranged earlier, on April Fool’s Day—he appeared leisured and unaffected by the mass demonstrations.
That Friday evening he held a press conference; then slept a little; and a little after four on the morning of May 9, accompanied by Manolo Sanchez (his valet), drove down to the Lincoln Memorial, where he talked with some surprised young demonstrators. He wished to walk back to the White House, through Lafayette Park; his aides, who had caught up with him, had great difficulty in persuading him to return by car.
All this makes a strong beginning to Parmet’s book, for it shows Richard Nixon’s courage and his self-possession. Perhaps he was too self-possessed: he had no small talk, he was acutely aware of his enemies’ power, and he was not at all sure that anyone would back him up in time of crisis—a suspicion sufficiently justified by the behavior, in the Watergate affair, of various close subordinates. Throughout his political career, he might have said, with Coriolanus, “Alone I did it.”
Professor Parmet’s big book—more than 750 pages—is a portrait of the age of Nixon, as well as a biography of the politician whose periods of success and of defeat alternated so violently as did the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire. The author’s mastery of detail, from 1876 to 1990, is really impressive; Herbert Parmet knows the literature of politics, too. He is the author of a book about Eisenhower and of two about John F. Kennedy. It would be difficult to find any biographer of recent statesmen more judicious and penetrating.
This book’s account of the Watergate disaster, the impeachment proceedings, and the President’s resignation is surprisingly, but mercifully, succinct—presumably because those subjects already have been treated by others exhaustively and exhaustingly. Readers not old enough to recall periodical reports of that controversy, or to have read the early books about Watergate, might do well to turn to Senator Carl Curtis’ book Forty Years Against the Tide (1986), Chapter XIII, “The Harassing of a President.” (Curtis led the defense of Mr. Nixon in the Senate.)
Shortly after Mr. Nixon’s resignation, I wrote to him, mentioning John Adams’ remark that in 1800 unpopularity had fallen upon him “like the Tower of Siloam. Sic transit gloria mundi.” But Richard Nixon was not broken. When questioned about how Nixon had kept sane in the closing months of his presidency, his successor, Gerald Ford, replied with something like a sob, “He was strong!” Nowadays he is praised for his sagacity in newspapers that once denounced him; his books have influence; the glory has not wholly departed.
Once upon a time, before Mr. Nixon was elected President, I had an assistant of mine, a handwriting expert among other things, analyze a Nixon holograph. What he found was remarkably different from the image that most journalists thrust upon the public. To judge by his handwriting, Mr. Nixon was not conspicuously practical or “pragmatic.” Rather, he took long views, and was earnestly desirous of being esteemed by posterity. (Resignation from office therefore could not have been more painful to any man.) Although conservative by general disposition, he was fond of innovating reforms: but possessing no high degree of imagination himself, he sought out advisors who were imaginative.
Of such, Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were the chief. The latter’s resignation late in 1970 was a blow: Nixon had desired “more stimulating people to talk to.” As Parmet observes, “Nixon would miss Moynihan. ‘Every time we get a little down, every time we need a little inspiration,’ he told the cabinet just before Christmas, ‘we’re going to want to call him back to give it to us.'”
Strange though it seems, Richard Nixon still has a future. Parmet concludes his perceptive book with these sentences: “If he were twenty years younger, cynics would have been quick to conclude that he was merely planning another resurrection. Richard Nixon, whether leading the Orthogonians [a Whittier College student society], the Republican Party, or the nation, wondered what he had to do to be taken seriously. Such determined absorption in vital issues is rare among American politicians.”
Amen to that. In his conduct of foreign affairs, Nixon will be commended by the next century’s historians. By sealing Haiphong harbor—as, early in 1967, he had told me he intended to do—he won the war in Vietnam, so disastrously bequeathed to him by Lyndon Johnson; but then Congress lost the war after all, by deserting South Vietnam during the Watergate fracas. His domestic policies, income-sharing in particular, were less happy; yet until Watergate he frustrated the enemies of order in America. And he was an honest public man. (At the height of the Watergate struggle, when Nixon stood accused of some amorphous corruption, I wrote in a newspaper column, “Mr. Nixon is not a crook”; he repeated my words, to reporters not much interested in the facts.)
As a well-written and convincing picture of an upright but unfortunate public man, and of American life and politics during most of the 20th century. Dr. Parmet’s book on Nixon may become the standard work in its controversial field.
[Richard Nixon and His America, by Herbert S. Parmet (Boston: Little, Brown and Company) 784 pp., $24.95]