"Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power" by Robert Dallek, HarperCollins, 740 pages, $32.50
Thirteen years after his death, American society is beginning to show signs of nostalgia for Richard Nixon. Why? Maybe America has discovered a serious contender for the title of "most problematic U.S. president in history." Or maybe, after all the anger and outrage, human curiosity has resurfaced, and America is now prepared to take a closer look at one of the most complicated and emotionally disturbed personalities ever to hold this lofty and powerful office.
Biographical writing about Nixon has recently become more nuanced and diversified. America has begun to take an interest in his writings, and a highly successful play now showing in New York is an attempt to crack the "Nixon code." As lovers of statistics and records of all kinds, Americans have done the math and discovered that Nixon was one of the presidents who lived longest after leaving office. During those years, despite constant complaints of poor health and bouts of melancholy, Nixon embarked on a tireless campaign to clear his name and prove that he did not belong on the list of America's greatest failures.
Historians, biographers and political scientists who try to unravel the puzzle of this strange man have come up with a wide range of explanations for his deeds. Some base their ideas on the fact that Nixon came to power after being defeated in his first bid for the presidency. There is something in the "comeback" phenomenon, they say, that causes such leaders to behave differently from leaders who reached office by the high road and never suffered a humiliating defeat. Others cite character flaws and emotional problems.
No matter what approach they take, all agree that Richard Nixon, unlike some other U.S. presidents, was not a man without talent. Some ascribe to him a whole range of exceptional achievements, singing his praises and even crediting him with the great successes of the West in the Cold War. Without Nixon, they say, Gorbachev would not have been toppled and the Berlin Wall would never have been torn down.
But even his admirers would think twice before crediting him with any domestic achievements. Nixon's head was in the international arena. Whereas his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, has been hailed in recent years as a champion of far-reaching internal reforms, no one would say the same about Nixon. Johnson is now credited with saving the country from a major showdown between blacks and whites - yet another clear example of how the image and presidential record of U.S. leaders changes over time. Today, presidents who were respected and loved in their day are being denounced as duplicitous and hypocritical (John F. Kennedy, for example), while those who were pegged as boring and lackluster, like Harry S Truman, are extolled as brilliant leaders. Could that also be true in Nixon's case?
In writing a book about Nixon's relations with Henry Kissinger, one of Dallek's goals seems to be reining in this burst of adulation for Nixon. Dallek specializes in presidential biographies. His studies of 20th-century American heads of state have been critically acclaimed and accepted as the final word on their subjects. Dallek was not the first to debunk the Kennedy myth, but when his book about JFK came out a few years ago, the legendary president went down in the eyes of his countrymen as one of the greatest frauds in modern American history.
In "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power," which has attracted a wide readership in the United States, Dallek has changed course and deviated from his successful formula. Instead of offering the biography of a single president, he tells the story of collaboration between two figures - the president and the man who was partner to his foreign-policy achievements. Bringing an end to the war in Vietnam, the diplomatic breakthrough with China, detente with the Soviet Union and advancing peace in the Middle East are just a few of the high points of Nixon's time in office. Of course, there were also resounding failures, like America's scandalous involvement in Chile and its role in the overthrow of the elected president, Salvador Allende.
What will the Jews say?
Writers know that great dramas are created when opposites meet. But the relations between Kissinger and Nixon are the stuff of drama, even though these two strong, talented men were very much alike. Both were hungry for power and fame, and had no qualms about running roughshod over laws and people. Both were obsessed with secrecy, and both lied through their teeth. At the same time, neither partner in this strange alliance had any problem screwing the other. If I use such terms to describe the relationship, it is only because that was the language these two statesmen used themselves. To anyone who was willing to listen, Kissinger confided that the president had the mind of a maniac, while Nixon delighted in making anti-Semitic quips about the "Jew" he had appointed as his top foreign policy adviser.
Readers of Dallek's lengthy, well-documented book are bound to ask: "So what's new?" Stories about Nixon's quirks are not exactly news, with rumors of his bizarre behavior already providing grist for the mill during his days in the White House. Also, nobody ever said Kissinger was the world's greatest altruist. Nevertheless, the details Dallek provides from firsthand sources, and the depth of the craziness he portrays, may surprise some people and justify the claim that he has written an intriguing and important book.
Dallek had access to sources and papers that were not available to previous Nixon biographers. In his brilliant study of Nixon's years in the White House, Richard Reeves' portrait of a lonely and isolated man, fiercely suspicious and totally paranoid, made no attempt to provide a broad and comprehensive picture. Dallek is interested in Nixon the man only as part of the larger context: the Kissinger-Nixon partnership and U.S. foreign policy during Nixon's term.
Dallek makes extensive use of audiotapes, transcripts of telephone conversations and material gleaned from surveillance devices planted here, there and everywhere by the apprehensive president. The reader cannot help wondering why Nixon wanted this taping system installed in the first place, and why he then kept all the incriminating evidence.
On the other hand, Dallek cannot control his own voyeuristic tendencies. Not that we can blame him. How could one resist quoting the stream of curses spewed out by the president during his attacks of paranoia? How can one not jump to conclusions, listening to his primitive anti-Semitic harangues? Dallek couldn't resist. Or maybe he was pandering to the taste of his anticipated readers. One way or another, the final product is somewhat bizarre. After reading through the president's rants a couple of times, I felt like someone examining an object through a magnifying glass, but from too close up.
Dallek does a better job when he describes and analyzes the actions of Kissinger and Nixon, rather than their personalities, although he insists that the two cannot be separated: It was their character that shaped their political endeavors. First of all, he says, in every sphere in which they claim to have achieved something, their motives were destructive. Nixon was driven by a single guiding principle, namely to take revenge on his past detractors and to be reelected. To insure his reelection, he was prepared to pull out of Vietnam regardless of whether it was good for the Vietnamese or the United States. He wanted to be the man on top, and anyone who stood in his way was shoved aside, slandered or even bumped off, if need be.
Nevertheless, this odd partnership between Nixon and Kissinger chalked up quite a few successes. Take Kissinger's Middle East diplomacy, for example At the White House, it should be pointed out, there were constant arguments over the appropriateness of having a Jew in charge of Middle East affairs. (Dallek cites the anti-Semitic comments of Nixon and his White House aides, directed at Kissinger, which, in this context, are certainly relevant). Anyone who denies the influence of the Jewish lobby on policy decisions in the United States is invited to read the transcripts of these inner sanctum talks. "What will the Jews say?" was a question that Nixon always bore in mind.
Prepared to do anything
Nixon's eagerness for reelection guided him in every decision he made, including U.S. relations with China. His one gnawing fear was that his envoy, Kissinger, would get all the credit. In retrospect, this drive to establish ties with China and shape one of the greatest dramas in political history might have had some very rational and sound reasoning behind it. One could explain it as a successful attempt to widen the rift in the Communist world and do everything possible to eliminate the ability of the two major Communist blocs, the Soviet Union and China, to confront the United States.
Nixon was prepared to do anything, even if it meant tangling with his natural supporters on the U.S. right to achieve this aim. He was indeed lambasted by the right, even more so after the fall of the Communist bloc. It was argued at the time that his policies on China ultimately held up the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The president who accelerated the process and orchestrated the turnabout was supposedly Ronald Reagan, a simple American patriot who did not mold the country's policies to fit his personal needs.
Without evincing the slightest affection for Nixon, Dallek rejects this slant on history. What toppled the Soviet Union, he says, was not Reagan's tough stance but Western policies that began to take shape in the days of Truman and which were staunchly adhered to by Nixon - a combination of deterrence and containment, while eagerly but patiently waiting for the regime's domestic problems to destroy it from within. That is exactly what happened, says Dallek, also thanks to Nixon and Kissinger.
Despite certain weaknesses, this book, like Dallek's other work, sets the stage for a fascinating discussion over the capabilities and limitations of American presidents, and the qualities needed by presidential candidates to carry out this awesome task. Election year in America is fast approaching, but as things stand, it seems doubtful that anyone will use the insights offered by the Nixon- Kissinger story to ask those candidates the pertinent questions.
Prof. Eli Shaltiel is the editor of the Ofakim series of Am Oved publishing house.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now