Nixon and Kissinger

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Richard M. Nixon remains one of the most enigmatic and interesting of all of the twentieth century presidents. From humble beginnings in Southern California to his disgrace and resignation with the Watergate scandal, Nixon embodied key elements American politics. During his presidency, he fashioned a close working relationship with his national security adviser and later secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Their interaction and what it meant for the world throughout the early 1970’s is the subject of Robert Dallek’s fascinating book Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power.

An acclaimed biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and John F. Kennedy, Dallek has tackled another high-profile presidential subject with his customary skill. Throughout his career as a prize-winning author and popular teacher at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dallek has displayed a continuing adroitness at making the presidents about whom he writes come alive on the page. His access to John F. Kennedy’s previously closed medical records helped make that biography a national best seller.

Dallek has hit pay dirt once again with this study of the unlikely team of the introverted, tormented national politician Richard Nixon and the German refugee turned world strategist Henry Kissinger. Using the extensive transcripts of Nixon-Kissinger telephone conversations in Kissinger’s papers at the Library of Congress plus the Nixon tapes in the National Archives, Dallek reconstructed with precision what the two men said to each other about foreign policy and the international personalities involved. Their remarks are candid, frank, and often damning to the reputation of the president and his most intimate adviser. Neither of the principals expected that their words would be made public in this fashion. The result is an inside look at how foreign policy was really made during the Vietnam conflict and the Cold War.

Many facets of the characters of both men are troubling. Nixon was in private a coarse, crude individual who delighted in emphasizing how tough he was toward his enemies. Dallek accurately labels the president “a cultural anti-Semite” for his disparaging remarks about Jews and their effect on American foreign relations. That Kissinger, himself a Jew, listened to this rhetorical bilge without protest and often with tacit agreement illustrates the toadying quality that granted him so much sway with Nixon.

Richard Nixon was obsessed with being regarded as a strong president during his administration and later in history. As Dallek reveals, Nixon spent ample time every day making sure that his aides told the press just how resolute and determined he was. Through his chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon ran a sophisticated public relations campaign to make the case for his presidential excellence. He would not be the last president who emphasized an image of toughness over actually making tough decisions for their own sake. While Nixon prided himself on his focus and discipline, Dallek’s analysis indicates that the president often wasted his time with trivial matters designed to feed his ego rather than making policy choices. The self-absorption and narcissism that characterized the mature Nixon are developed with great narrative skill in Dallek’s gripping pages.

Kissinger, on the other hand, comes across as the deft courtier, always ready to chime in with the fulsome praise that Nixon coveted. Dallek shows that Kissinger trashed the president in private and to the friendly journalists that he ensnared with leaks and exclusives. Nixon was smart enough to realize how Kissinger was behaving but tolerated the methods of his valuable subordinate nonetheless. There are portions of this book that read as though Dallek had transcribed passages from the script of the television series The Sopranos rather than revealed the wise conduct of American foreign policy at the highest levels.

Both of these leaders had a deep disdain for the institutions by which Americans had chosen to govern themselves. Nixon came into office with a contempt for the Department of State and an intention to run foreign policy out of the White House. Secretary of State William P. Rogers was a marginal figure in Nixon’s calculations, yet Dallek shows that often the bureaucrats at the State Department had a wiser comprehension of the complexities of...

(The entire section is 1805 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

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The Washington Post, May 13, 2007, p. BW07.