Reviewed by Joan Hoff
Sunday, January 6, 2008
RICHARD M. NIXON
A Life in Full
By Conrad Black
Public Affairs. 1,152 pp. $40
Right up until he was sentenced last month to six and a half years in prison on mail fraud and obstruction of justice charges, newspaper mogul Conrad Black energetically promoted his new biography of Richard Nixon. Unable to travel -- he had surrendered his passport -- Black remained at his mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., but conversed one afternoon with readers at a London book shop using a video link and a LongPen, a long-distance book-signing device developed by author Margaret Atwood. Asked whether he saw any similarities between himself and Nixon, Black replied that in Nixon's case, "there was in fact a break-in and there was some activity that was not legal" -- whereas in his own case, "there was no illegality." At his Dec. 10 sentencing, he continued to insist on his innocence.
Be that as it may, Black's deep identification with the 37th president of the United States is obvious throughout his book. It portrays Nixon much as the Canadian-born media tycoon sees himself: as a self-made man of great talent, industry and conservative political principles who is tragically thwarted by liberals and a hostile press.
For such a doorstop of a book, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full contains little new information. It is long on detail and short on critical analysis. While Black consulted Nixon's memoirs and the president's other writings, his account largely relies on what others have already published. It is original only to the degree that Black uses facts gleaned from other authors to cast Nixon in a favorable light. Yet Black is so passionate about the topic and so witty in places that readers with an abundance of time and an abiding interest in Nixon may enjoy it, particularly for its tidbits about Nixon's family life and courtship of his eventual wife, Thelma Catherine ("Pat") Ryan. As a young couple in love, Black tells us, Dick and Pat "led a double life," often escaping the Quaker dowdiness of Whittier, Calif., for the nightclubs and strip joints of Los Angeles.
Black's scant research in primary sources may reflect Henry Kissinger's advice (noted at the beginning of the book's bibliography) that "Richard Nixon is much better understood reading what he wrote than listening to the idiosyncratic and inconsistent flow of what he said to his subordinates." Kissinger's suggestion that historians should ignore the president's conversations is clearly self-serving, since White House tapes and telephone transcripts show him providing less astute and more sycophantic advice to the president than Black conveys. Black's personal and professional friendship with Kissinger may account for this slanted depiction; both Kissinger and his wife served on the board of the newspaper company, Hollinger International, that Black was convicted of defrauding.
While this biography contains no fresh information about the major crises Nixon faced during his pre-presidential years -- such as his role on the House Un-American Activities Committee or the slush fund that resulted in his famous 1952 "Checkers" speech -- it does offer a few shrewd insights into his early life and political career. As a youth, Black says, Nixon was an outsider and lacked natural political gifts but nonetheless could relate to ordinary people because he "reminded them of themselves." Until the 1940s, Nixon had no "opportunity to think much about the world, or develop what would prove an historic gift for foreign policy." Yet throughout his political career, Black argues, Nixon tried "to balance . . . liberal and conservative Republicans" and actually "was a force for comparative moderation" who "generally kept clear of the more extreme forms of partisan backbiting." Black also makes a convincing case that Nixon lacked traditional racial prejudice, held anti-segregationist views and made an early commitment to civil rights.
Roughly half of the book's 1,152 pages are devoted to Nixon's presidency, the subject that suffers most from Black's reliance on secondary sources. His account of Watergate, for example, is out of date because he did not consult recently released tapes. These tapes show that Nixon was more deeply involved with White House Counsel John W. Dean in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in than Dean revealed at the Senate Watergate hearings, where Dean wanted to come across as a reluctant witness and heroic whistleblower. Conversations between Nixon and Dean on March 16, 1973, show them concocting the story that "there was not a scintilla of evidence in the investigation that led anywhere near the White House." Careful review of the new tapes also suggests that Dean's famous warning to Nixon on March 21, 1973, about a "cancer . . . within the presidency" was, in fact, a rehearsed utterance he intended to cite if summoned to testify.
While Black properly gives Nixon credit for d¿tente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with China, he twists the facts when it comes to the president's Middle Eastern, African and Latin American policies in an effort to portray them as unmitigated successes. Most egregiously, he denies any U.S. involvement in Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, ignoring evidence that Nixon and Kissinger allowed clandestine CIA funding of opposition media, politicians and organizations and that they brought American financial pressure to bear on Allende's democratically elected government. Declassified CIA documents indicate that Kissinger and Nixon, as well as President Gerald Ford, turned a blind eye to Pinochet's human rights violations.
Pinochet died in December 2006 before he could be tried on charges related to the torture and killing of some 3,000 Chilean citizens -- charges that Black blithely dismisses as "short-term human rights outrages in perturbed conditions." Black concludes that Pinochet was "ultimately good for Chile" and that Allende's overthrow was "another clear-cut Nixon victory."
Instead of turning this and other questionable foreign policies into triumphs, Black might have better served the president he so admires by concentrating on Nixon's domestic policies. They ranged from desegregation of Southern schools, to federal environmental legislation, expansion of social security benefits and support for civil rights for women and Native Americans. These initiatives, along with Nixon's failed attempts to overhaul welfare and health care, make him the most active Republican reformer in the White House since Theodore Roosevelt. But domestic policy battles are often hard to portray as heroic, and Black short-sightedly insists that Nixon's historical greatness lies in his global diplomacy. *
Joan Hoff is the author of "Nixon Reconsidered" and "A Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush."