Annenberg: A Biography of Power
by Gaeton Fonzi
Weybright and Talley, 246 pp., $7.95
Shortly after Richard Nixon was chosen to bring us together, he announced that he would write each of the many thousands of Americans listed in Who’s Who a letter requesting guidance. Although everyone would get the same letter, Nixon did want to make one thing very clear: he himself would add a personal postscript complimenting the recipient for his particular contribution to the American imperium. On tender hooks, as the late Alfalfa Bill Murray would say, I waited for my letter. What word of praise would Nixon have for the author of The Best Man? The suspense was exquisite. At last the letter arrived. Office of the President-Elect (a nostalgic moment as I recalled 1960’s joke: the President-Erect) Richard M. Nixon, Washington D. C. was the heading. Under this my name and address; then nothing until the bold signature Richard Nixon. Thus did the wittiest administration in American history begin.
Now, a year later, it is plain to almost everyone that Nixon’s sense of fun is the most remarkable thing about him, even more appealing than his ability to hear what the silent say (a typical Nixon joke, incidentally, quite lost on ponderous liberals). If he has not yet made America (love it or leave it) one great Laugh-in, the fault’s not his but ours as Max Lerner might put it. He has done his best. From the unveiling on television’s prime time of Spiro Agnew (our very own Greek Colonel) to the running commentaries of Martha and John Mitchell (the Allen and Burns of the Nixon Network), he has proved a master entrepreneur as well as source of a thousand jokes, many too subtle for the solemn race history requires him to preside over.
For instance, hardly anyone suspected that something funny was up when Nixon appointed Walter Annenberg as ambassador to England. Yet any student of Nixon mischief ought to have known that he would somehow manage to apple-pie the bed of Harold Wilson’s Socialist government which had sent as ambassador to Washington (in anticipation of a Humphrey administration), one John Freeman, former New Statesman editor who had written unkindly of Nixon in 1960. That’s just the sort of thing Dick remembers as he surveys those crises which make up his past with an eye to fixing any wagon that ever ran over him: but with sly rather than vindictive wit; with the boffo laugh, not the mean curse.
Before Annenberg was appointed, treasurers of Nixon wit were making up lists of possible ambassadors. Dean Acheson? His bland dismissals of postwar England were a high qualification. Claire Boothe Luce? Always good for a wisecrack. H. L. Hunt? This was my choice. A distinguished anti-Commie, he carries his lunch about with him in a used brown paper bag. But then came the news: Walter Annenberg had been inked.
Nothing was known of Annenberg except that he published a couple of bad newspapers in Philadelphia (no great laughing matter) and his father Mo …