The biographer of Hoover and Marilyn Monroe turns his skills to the complex story of Richard Nixon, and offers an intimate portrait of the man - and major new revelations. Drawing on the fruits of years of meticulous research (including the 350 hours of Watergate era recordings released since 1996) and over 700 interviews, Summers reveals the bizarre behaviour that Nixon frequently displayed, his physical abuse of his wife, his embroilment with organized crime, and his procurement of vast sums of money. He makes numerous revisions of the received wisdom about Watergate, and, most serious of all, damning revelations about Nixon and Vietnam. He also offers a devastating psychological portrait, revealing that Nixon was not only a chronic and compulsive liar, he was also plagued by jealousy and paranoia, repressed emotions and psychological inadequacy.
But there was something else, too, that made me uneasy about this book. I found myself wondering if the author didn't also have a paranoiac personality. Almost every paragraph in the 468 pages was negative and accusatory.
The real sad thing about this episode of American government is that it added up to be the sickest of several sick administrations in the country's short history and that it may have led to many citizens not trusting their leaders one little bit. That sort of mistrust makes governing exceedingly difficult for any elected official and always evolves into mistrust of every other human being on the planet.
Has it ever been thus?
My hardback copy comes in at nearly 500 pages not counting the notes, and it covers Nixon’s life from the early days in California to his resignation from the Presidency. That is a an easy read for a history and biography buff like myself, though others might find the going tedious, but I must say, Summers always has something interesting happening in every chapter. The book spends enough time on Nixon’s childhood to give us a picture of a young man scared by poverty and the emotional repression that came from living with two difficult parents, and the death of two brothers at a young age. Summers lets us know where Nixon’s will to succeed no matter what the cost mentality came from, along with a resentful sense of inferiority. Over and over throughout his career, we see Nixon painfully strive to fit in, yet there is always something off, an inability to simply be himself, because it is clear that Nixon never trusted himself, and he certainly never trusted others. He becomes a lawyer with little real interest in practicing law, serves as a junior officer in the Navy during World War II, and jumps at an opportunity to run for Congress as soon as the war is over. Nixon’s peculiar skills and driving ambition find a natural outlet in a political career, one that takes from the House, where he was one of the earliest Red baiters, to the Senate after a bruising and bitter campaign against a liberal Democrat, to the Vice Presidency, and on after to the defeats, comebacks, victories, and to the final political apocalypse that was the Watergate scandal.
And as bad as Watergate was, I found Nixon’s actions in the last days of the 1968 Presidential election to be far more reprehensible. That is when he sabotaged an opportunity to obtain a settlement in the Vietnam War by sending an emissary form his campaign to Saigon with a message for the South Vietnamese President to stall until after the election, to not send representatives to the Paris peace talks because Nixon would give them better terms than the outgoing administration of Lyndon Johnson. So fearful was Nixon that a last minute deal on Vietnam might elect Democrat Hubert Humphrey, and rob him of the Presidency, that he committed an act that could be considered treason. Though it is impossible to know what might have ultimately come out of the deal that never was, what we do know is that many more American boys, along with countless Vietnamese civilians, would continue to die in Southeast Asia over the next four years, as President Richard Nixon sought that elusive “peace with honor.”
I liked Summers account of Watergate, a complicated piece of history that he makes very comprehensible to the reader. Keeping track of who is who, and who knew what and when is no easy thing. We get a picture of a paranoid President plotting in the Oval Office from the get go, more than capable of approving of every breakin and every illegal wire tap, shredding the excuse that Nixon apologists have made over the years that the President was mislead by his subordinates into Watergate, and only covered it up out of loyalty. What is even more frightening are the accounts Summers relates of Nixon’s mental state as the scandal engulfed him; not only that, but the drinking that put him out of action at critical moments, as when American military forces were put on worldwide alert during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 when the Soviets threatened to intervene in the Middle East. This was a decision made by Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger while the President was asleep in the family quarters of the White House. Equally telling is the worries of members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer of ’74 that the Commander in Chief might actually use the military to stay in power as Congress made moves to impeach him. Some of the accounts seem extreme, but they all have a similar ring to them, and they come from many different witnesses.
What I think is a bridge too far is Summers’ allegation that Nixon physically abused his wife, Pat, on more than one occasion. Most of the evidence he sites is hearsay long after the fact, and I couldn’t help but feel that spousal abuse was such a heinous thing to accuse anyone of, that it should demand a higher level of proof. Still, Summers more than makes the case that Richard Nixon was capable of such actions.
What we almost never see in the pages of Summers’ book is what made Richard Nixon the most formidable political figure in American politics of the mid 20th Century: missing is the master political skills that allowed him to manage his own Presidential campaign in 1968 (John Mitchell was a figurehead); the grasp of foreign affairs the led him to détente with the Soviets and the opening of relations with Mao’s China; the drive and perseverance that took him from a meager beginning in California to a being a giant on the world stage; the opportunistic politician who realigned the American electoral landscape by making the Republican Party the spokesman for “The Silent Majority.” What we do get a real sense of is the Jekyll/Hyde nature of Nixon’s personality, the sanctimonious and pious public persona he projected in public for more than a quarter of century on the political stage, never once letting slip the foul mouthed, angry, paranoid, and bigoted man that raged behind closed doors.
The book was written nearly 20 years ago now, and some things date it; there is a fleeting mention of Mark Felt, then another one of Deep Throat, the famous leaker to Woodward and Bernstein, with no acknowledgement that they are the same person. And the massive dysfunction in the White House that Summers describes was certainly seen in a different light when it was read more than a decade ago, it all takes on a much different color when read today in the Trump era. In the end, the book is well titled, for THE ARROGANCE OF POWER makes for a damning case against Richard Nixon, one he spent his years in retirement trying to make the public forget. This is justice of a kind.