HOORAY, hooray, the gang's all here! Nixon, Kissinger, Al Haig, Chou En-Lai, Mao Tse-tung, Rose Mary Woods, Bob Haldeman . . . wait a minute, where's John Ehrlichman? Anyone seen John Ehrlichman . . . hey, there he is, behind that typewriter, still settling scores and harboring a grudge as big as the Ritz. That rascal. Practically the only Nixon White House official who does not appear in this novel of intrigue is the author himself, and that is an act of supreme auto-kindness.
Ehrlichman has extended the fictional horizons of his first novel, The Company, which became the TV mini-series "Washington Behind Closed Doors." The conceit here is that Chinese Premier Chou En-lai conspired to cultivate a young lawyer on Nixon's staff in 1967 as an agent of influence, so as to manipulate Nixon into an eventual rapprochement with the PRC. The young man, one Matt Thompson, becomes Nixon's right hand China man -- to the great annoyance of Henry Kissinger -- as he treads a tightrope of ambiguity between being a facilitator and a foreign spy. It is an excellent basis for a novel, and Ehrlichman is an adroit plotter. He delivers the basic goods: suspense, surprise, danger, and the obligatory romantic involvements. He invents some ingenious situations for his characters, and is capable of good dialogue in high places.
He is also capable of such as the following, in which Matt expresses gratitude to his girlfriend, a cardboard-gorgeous, blond WASP in a camel's hair coat who has just eliminated Matt's rival on the campaign by whispering to Rose Mary Woods that the woman is a lesbian:
"Right now I'm feeling very grateful to you, sweetheart. I guess I should have guessed you would do something, but I didn't know you were so good with the brass knuckles."
"Only where you're involved, Matt. You're my love. I'd probably kill someone who was being mean to you. That's the way I feel about you."
Oo, yucky. Gag me with a Sak's Fifth Avenue charge card. That's romance on the Nixon campaign. No one is very likable here, least of all the hero. But certainly the least savory character is none other than Doctor Henry A. Kissinger. One might have thought that Ehrlichman had amply ventilated his wrath on the former director of the National Security Council and Secretary of State by now, but the splenetic well turns out to be practically bottomless. The portrait of HK here is of a toweringly small man, petty, egomaniacal, ruthless, paranoid, devious, pompous, and cruel. I kept waiting for him to strangle a puppy, but Ehrlichman resisted the temptation to include such a vignette.
It is in some respects, at least, a familiar picture. Kissinger threatens to resign every three minutes. "It is time for me to go back to Cambridge, where I am so deeply loved and admired by students and faculty alike. Leave me now, Al; I must write a letter." We know he used to do this sort of thing, but did he really sound like that?
When he is not threatening to resign he is insulting his patron, Nixon, behind his back at every opportunity, calling him variously "that tower of jelly," or "an ego-starved idiot." He is frantically engaged in trying to beat Nixon to Peking and into the history books. We know from the memoirs that that was in fact the case. In one very clever scene Nixon decides to have some fun with Kissinger by telling him that he is thinking of sending Tom Dewey or George Bush to China as his envoy to conduct the secret negotiations. Kissinger leaves the Oval Office in a purple funk, and broods about it for a while until it dawns on him that Tom Dewey has been dead for several months. Very nice indeed.
But was the real Kissinger such a monster that he would contemplate handing over a White House staffer to the Chinese to be tortured? Just who is John Ehrlichman to make that kind of call? Have you no decency, sir?
THE PORTRAIT of Nixon is finely drawn, and verisimilar. He rails against the "pantywaists" at the State Department; against the "Council on Foreign Relations types who are always complaining that the cops are too tough on the poor little rock-throwing Negro kids who would cut their throats for a quarter." His openness at Matt Thompson's manipulations comes down to pragmatic considerations: "Chiang [Kai-shek] is getting to be a very old man," he muses, even before becoming president, "and that son of his is a mean little bastard. We ought to be looking at the main chance, which is an improvement in relations with the mainland. It always comes down to a question of who has the most to offer, doesn't it?"
There is a hefty Author's Note at the beginning explaining that all this is made up. Okay, but that is going to come as slim consolation to those unfortunate wretches who appear under their own names. Hell hath no fury like a former Nixon White House official turned novelist, I guess. This is fiction with a hidden agenda: getting even. That and Ehrlichman's ability with a typewriter makes it pretty entertaining, alas.