Within The Arena: A Memoir of Victory Defeat and Renewal, Richard Nixon has produced a hybrid work, part autobiography, part political commentary. The book possesses little literary merit. Its structure shapeless, and its prose colorless, In the Arena is an ambiguous monument to the effect of tape recorders on modern literature. Nixon’s book lacks even the dubious merit of imparting state secrets or intimate anecdotes of the sort excerpted by the news magazines and Sunday supplements. Despite this, however, In the Arena is a valuable work, for it may be the last word of Richard Nixon on his life and beliefs. On every page, in what it says, and how it says it, and in what it fails to say, In the Arena provides insight into the tumultuous and strange career of the only man ever compelled to resign the presidency of the United States.
In the Arena is many things, but first and foremost it is historical apologia. Few statesmen have been as solicitous of their place in history as Richard Nixon. Indeed, Nixon’s sense of history underlaid, at least in part, both his authorization of the taping of conversations in the Oval Office and his fatal decision not to destroy these tapes once their existence became known during the Watergate crisis. History for Richard Nixon is no abstraction, but rather a vital force bestowing or withholding meaning from the lives of men. On occasion, in the pages of In the Arena, Nixon professes a Christian faith. It is clear, however, that his awe is reserved less for God the Savior than for the God of the Last Judgment, who will apocalyptically justify and conclude history.
Consequently, Nixon spends much of his book meditating on the vicissitudes of fortune and proclaiming his superiority to them. He returns again and again to his theme of defeat and renewal. He repeatedly quotes Theodore Roosevelt on the importance of perseverance in the face of failure. He dwells on his brush with disaster of 1952, when he thwarted attempts to drop him as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, and his dramatic political rebirth after successive defeats running for the presidency in 1960 and the governorship of California in 1962. Nixon even invokes Arnold Toynbee’s theory of the “wilderness syndrome,” according to which great men often withdraw from their realm of action before returning charged with new creative purpose. Without a trace of self-consciousness, Nixon likens his travails to those of such eminent statesmen as Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Nixon’s equation of his suffering with that of these heroic figures is as artless as it is shameless. Any sense of the irony or the ambiguity of comparing Watergate to de Gaulle’s self-imposed exile from French politics after victory in World War II, or Churchill’s years in political exile during the 1930’s, is lost as Nixon diligently expounds the moral that adversity builds character. Nixon, frankly, sees nothing wrong with placing himself on the same planes as these great men. From a relatively early age, he played an important role in the life of his nation, and associated on easy terms with his heroes. Like them, he held high office, performed mighty deeds, waged war and made peace.
Yet for all his celebration of the heroic and tragic vision of life, Nixon demonstrates a remarkable blindness to the moral underpinnings of that attitude. He forgets that in classical tragedy, a man’s downfall is as much a result of his own flaws as it is of the implacable hostility of the fates. He forgets that the greatness of Churchill and de Gaulle sprang not from their remarkable public resurrections but from the vindication of their thoroughly moral dedication to principle. None of Richard Nixon’s comebacks bears the same sort of moral freight.
Nixon’s discussion of Watergate is typical of this moral obtuseness. Nixon describes the crisis which brought down his presidency as “one part wrongdoing, one part blundering, and one part political vendetta.” Instead of addressing the weighty constitutional issues raised by the Watergate affair, Nixon prefers to list a series of so-called myths which have plagued him since the scandal. He vehemently denies ordering the Watergate break-in, authorizing payoffs to the Watergate burglary defendants, and directing the Central Intelligence Agency to obstruct the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s exploration of the Watergate incident. Nixon scoffs at the notion that he or members of his staff erased the famous eighteen minutes from one of his tapes; in addition, he attempts to refute charges that he ordered the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and misused the government’s power in other ways, including the ordering of illegal wiretaps on political opponents. Some of Nixon’s denials are plausible, others disingenuous. Much of the moral force of his defense is undercut by a bland and lawyerlike reliance on technicalities. Nixon admits asking his Secretary of the Treasury to order an Internal Revenue Service audit of Lawrence O’Brien, a leading Democratic politician, noting that there was nothing strictly illegal about such harassment. In the same way, Nixon observes that the wiretapping he ordered for purposes of national security was not illegal at the time. He even waxes indignant because he was called to account for a practice engaged in by earlier Democratic administrations. The Nixon of In the Arena seems an endlessly wronged man.
In fact, one can readily understand and even sympathize with Nixon’s angry denunciation of the press and the Democratic opposition, which so readily, and at times so happily, resorted to wild and unfair attacks on his administration. Nevertheless, Nixon’s attribution of so much of his troubles to the hostility of his eternally intractable foes does no more justice to the facts than it does to his own equation for the blame in the Watergate mess. Richard Nixon’s administration was its own worst enemy, and no amount of journalistic sniping or congressional rancor could have brought it down without the stimulation of its own excesses. To some degree Nixon appears to appreciate this. He acknowledges his own political ruthlessness, and admits that he might have set a higher tone for his campaign associates. He also confesses that he did not adequately supervise the actions of his subordinates, and that he remained loyal to these...
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