Surviving is a miracle. [Herbert] Hoover told me when he was in his eighties, “I intend to outlive the bastards!” I’ll outlive some of them, but who knows how much time is left.
This statement was made by eighty-year-old Richard M. Nixon as he ruminated about media adversaries on January 19, 1993, the day before the inauguration of President Bill Clinton and fifteen months prior to suffering a fatal stroke. Call him what you will, the man many thought of as “Tricky Dick” was a survivor and long will remain America’s most intriguing modern political figure. A more single-minded political animal than his 1960 Democratic rival John F. Kennedy and more relentless than his presidential predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson, who chose not to brave the wrath of antiwar voters and run against Nixon in 1968, Nixon was a master dissembler but did have grit, like his favorite president, TR (Theodore Roosevelt). In Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 (1991), biographer Stephen E. Ambrose chronicled Nixon’s herculean efforts at self-resurrection following his forced resignation in disgrace as a co-conspirator in the Watergate scandals. Monica Crowley’s Nixon Off the Record: His Candid Commentary on People and Politics is, in effect, a less scholarly, less subtle, less balanced, but more intimate sequel, carrying forward the story of Nixon’s never- ending quest for elder statesman status (even from the grave since, one suspects, Nixon must have known his off-the-record musings would eventually reach print).
The author, whose chief asset seems to have been an extremely sensitive ear, was hired fresh out of Colgate University in 1990 as a foreign policy assistant after the political science major wrote Nixon a flattering letter concerning his book, 1999: Victory Without War (1990). She clearly regarded him as a great, though tormented man, which makes her on-target observations as to his vanity, secrecy, and capacity for self-delusion all the more telling. Crowley came to discover that Nixon took a perverse pleasure when other former presidents stumbled. He brimmed with satisfaction when flattered, especially after being called on at his New Jersey office by leading political figures of the day. In discussing these personages Nixon filtered almost all his judgments through an autobiographical prism, employing analogies that invariably reflected favorably upon himself. Crowley, in short, captures her mentor at his best (tough, disciplined, self-confident in his political acumen and international expertise) and at his worst (suspicious, smarmy, pathetically egotistical, and still jousting with ghosts of twenty years past).
The image that the octogenarian Nixon tried to maintain was that of a still virile and intellectually acute political scientist and master practitioner of his chosen profession, that most deadly and amoral of vocations. Nixon told Crowley that he had written his own key speeches, had coined the phrase “Silent Majority,” had been the champion of the hard-hats and had stood up in his Inauguration limousine (and ordered Mrs. Nixon to do the same) in order to show “those goddamned” antiwar demonstrators that they could not push him around. He pretended not to watch television, yet somehow knew all about what had been on “the tube” the previous night and was mortified when his protégé once showed up unexpectedly and spotted him enjoying an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. He sprinkled his language with profanities, charging that the media were “all sh——s,” that Bill Clinton’s 1992 candidacy was as weak as “piss on a rock,” and that Clinton’s foreign policy advisers “didn’t know sh— from shinola.” Like Johnson and unlike Kennedy, Nixon preferred bathroom epithets to scatological humor but was hungry for the latest salacious gossip. Any mention of the Clintons or Kennedys was likely to evoke feigned outrage over their moral turpitude.
The weakest of Nixon Off the Record s three parts, a thirty-five-page section on presidential leadership entitled “Head, Heart, and Guts,” suffers from a lack of historical context and retraces ground covered in Nixon’s books Leaders (1990) and Seize the Moment (1992). The former presidents Nixon most admired were risk takers like himself, primarily Democrats and none without flaws, who recognized the primacy of foreign affairs. Although lacking in political realism, Woodrow Wilson gallantly fought for his internationalist principles. Though he used rather devious methods to achieve his ends, Franklin Delano Roosevelt prevailed over his isolationist critics in opposing the Axis powers during World War II. Harry S Truman was forceful in...
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