David Frum reviews Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, by Conrad Black.
Almost a decade ago, at the zenith of his power and wealth, Conrad Black set out to write a biography of the most powerful and enduring of American presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At first glance, it seemed a strange encounter. Black championed legendarily right-wing politics; Roosevelt was . . . well, Roosevelt. And yet, Black fiercely admired and in some ways even identified with the man who once damned people like Black as "economic royalists." Yet the book proved a surprising intellectual and commercial success, widely and rightly applauded as the best single-volume biography of America's longest-serving president.
Since then, fortune has turned on Black. He has been investigated, indicted, and convicted. His companies have been stripped from him and massive penalties imposed. Through the ordeal, he has behaved with courage and dignity, supported by the steadfast love of his wife and his children.
Black argues that, even all these years later, no evidence has emerged that Nixon ordered the Watergate burglary, or sought to buy anybody's silence, or exceeded the normal rules of politics in his struggle to survive.
Somehow, Black found time during this tribulation to continue writing. And once you heard he had begun, his choice of subject was obvious and inevitable: the most embattled and tenacious of American presidents, Richard Nixon.
Black brought to his Roosevelt project a distinct and revisionist point of view. His FDR is much more prescient about Hitler and Stalin and much less radical on economics than the FDR of most history books. With Nixon, Black offers something more unusual than a novel thesis: direct personal knowledge of his subject. Black spent many hours with Nixon in the president's final years. Black was also an intimate friend of Nixon's most important adviser, Henry Kissinger. Some of the most fascinating passages in the book come when Black allows us a glimpse of the weird triangular friendship between the three men. Black writes:
Kissinger always has been an inexhaustible storehouse of nasty opinions about almost everyone. Only a few extremely powerful or intimate people are exempt from his rather unattractive habit of running down everyone, no matter how congenial he is with the subjects when he sees them.
Many writers who know their subjects so well might be tempted to take shortcuts in the archives. Not Black. He's researched everything and read everything, and delights in pulling up amazing let-Nixon-be-Nixon and let-Henry-be-Henry nuggets.
In 1971, Black reports, Nixon watched an episode of All in the Family and was appalled that that "Arch square type" (Archie Bunker) was made to look bad compared with a supposedly homosexual friend of his daughter. "Is this common on television? Destruction of civilization to build homos?" he asked H. R. Haldeman.
And here is Black's account of what happened when it was revealed that Kissinger had been wiretapping some of his closest associates, including his own assistant, Winston Lord: "When all this came to light in 1973, two full years after it had stopped, Nixon manfully took the entire responsibility for it and gave it a national-security cover. . . . Kissinger [, who] had had a great deal more to do with choosing the targeted individuals than Nixon . . . tried a fully gymnastic range of explanations, including that he was doing them a favor by enabling them to demonstrate that they were above suspicion."
Many who write about Nixon have emphasized his weirdness, his resentments, his suspicion. Black acknowledges all those facets of Nixon's character, but he argues that they tend to be overstressed. And where Nixon was genuinely weird, it was in ways shared with many of his predecessors--and probably many of his successors.
Nixon constantly telephoned people in the middle of the night and demanded that thousands of people be dismissed, and on one occasion ordered Kissinger to have every employee of the State Department submitted to a lie-detector test. When Nixon was serious, he followed up orders and demanded they be executed. . . . [But] Franklin D. Roosevelt once ordered that the United States Marines occupy the Chicago Tribune building and that its publisher be charged with high treason. Winston Churchill, two nights before the invasion of Western Europe in Normandy, ordered (at 3 a.m.) that General de Gaulle be removed from Britain . . . and taken to Algeria, "in chains." Needless to say, neither order was carried out.
Black sustains his positive view of Nixon by emphasizing foreign policy over domestic; Nixon may well qualify as the worst economic manager of the 20th century. Black passes gently by Nixon's more cynical and short-sighted decisions to focus his appreciation on the finesse and subtlety of Nixon's foreign policy.
Black argues that the record here is impressive: the extrication from Vietnam on terms that would have enabled the South to survive had Nixon not been crippled by Watergate; the ultra-subtle balancing of China against the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union against China; the realignment of Egypt as an American ally; and so on.
Inevitably, though, it is the ending of the story that will most fascinate readers, who wonder about parallels between Nixon's fall and resurrection and Black's.
Black forthrightly argues that Nixon's proven misdeeds simply do not add up to the "high crimes and misdemeanors" demanded by the Constitution. Black argues that, even all these years later, no evidence has emerged that Nixon ordered the Watergate burglary, or sought to buy anybody's silence, or exceeded the normal rules of politics in his struggle to survive. He also catches Nixon critics in fine acts of hypocrisy--e.g., Joe Califano and Arthur Schlesinger vehemently denying that Johnson or Kennedy would ever have taped the Oval Office, when they could and did.
Yet, at the same time, Black is a close and sensitive student of Nixon's self-destruction. Here he writes of Nixon at a fatal turning point in December 1972: "Nixon had detected danger many times in his presidency, when his opponents thought they had him cornered. . . . He had outsmarted them every time. On [Watergate], he seemed to be blind to its legal implications, and to the horrible indignity that the proximity of any such sleazy behavior inflicted on the great office to which he had just been returned."
And here is Black's verdict on Nixon's final conversations with John Dean, before Dean turned his coat in April 1973: "At the decisive moment of his entire career, Nixon made the wrong as well as the timid decision. . . . If he did not move very soon, it would be impossible to disentangle himself from those who had committed felonies." In the end, writes Black, Nixon "had been sideswiped by an event he was just starting to understand when it was almost too late to address it."
Black is a writer of severe restraint and martini-dry wit. Still, he allows himself one personal editorial comment on the meaning and legacy of Watergate, one that expresses his deep--and well-founded--anger at the way in which he was put to trial on the self-serving testimony of his former business partner:
The American prosecutorial system encourages a system of suborned or intimidated perjury, or at least spontaneous clarity of recollection, to move upwards in the inculpation of officials in any organization where wrongdoing is alleged. Plea bargains are negotiated by threat and financial strangulation and reduction of penalties, as lower echelons roll over in sequence blaming higher-ups.
It is a questionable system, which [has led] to the installation of the "whistleblower"--i.e., the squealer--as one of the central figures in American commerce. This process is topped out with the "allocution," as the plea-bargainer denounces himself like the tortured victim of Stalin's show trials. Since the purpose of the plea bargain, for the confessant, is to reduce his sentence, the United States at least avoids the splendid Stalinist flourish of the accused demanding the swiftest possible imposition of the death penalty on himself.
The most moving and beautifully written passages in the book describe the ex-president's departure from Washington, and his illness, isolation, and near-death in the fall of 1974 and spring of 1975. It should have been the end; it proved instead only the latest of Nixon's new beginnings--one of those new beginnings being a new friendship with Black. Nixon wrote books and gave speeches (never accepting a fee, as Black emphasizes). He published articles, advised world leaders, gave interviews.
Nixon's opinions, Black wryly observes, were often wrong: Nixon insisted to the end of the Cold War that the Soviet system would endure. But they consistently hit the perfect sweet spot for bigfoot international commentary, just slightly askew from perfect conventionality, and delighted the media by striking an unmistakable note of criticism of the Reagan administration. For, yes, by the end Nixon had even reached a new entente with the press. Black quotes a bitter private remark by Kissinger: "He is like a prisoner who has fallen in love with his guard."
Has Black sketched a road map to his own future? Many readers will be tempted to think so. Not me. Nixon was a dark, cynical, and in many ways sinister man. "You've got to be a little evil to understand those people out there." He was talking about foreign leaders, but it's hard not to hear the philosophy of a lifetime. The overwhelming impression one takes away of the narrator, by contrast, is that of a man without guile. Black's two favorite adjectives are "distinguished" and "considerable." He is a straightforward admirer of the institutions of American government and the great men of his youth: not only Roosevelt and Nixon, but also Eisenhower and, preeminently, de Gaulle. In all the mass of this book, you will find not a whiff of that touch of evil on which Nixon prided himself.
This is an impressive and profound book by a decent man, written under travail and adversity. One is left wishing that there will be many more like it from Conrad Black, and that a writer who, in his tycoon days, did so much to assist and support the work of others will at last be granted the tranquility to complete his own.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.