Excelsior!

Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power

by Rowland Evans Jr., by Robert D. Novak
Random House, 431 pp., $8.95

The First Two Years of the Nixon Watch

by John Osborne
Liveright, 218 pp., $3.75

Almost everyone who has tried to make sense of Richard Milhous Nixon has acknowledged serious doubts about the value of the effort, admitted spells of boredom and outbursts of anger, and confessed recurrent frustration in finding and understanding the man. Their exasperation calls to mind the old children’s game: “Nixon, Nixon, who’s got the Nixon?”

The answer, very probably, is nobody. Not even Nixon.

If that is correct, and I think it is, then we can be clear about the reason for our unhappiness, anger, and fear. It is a shell game without any pea.

The support for this interpretation begins to emerge as one reviews other explanations of the man. One approach, offered by liberals and radicals (and some old-fashioned conservatives), pictures him as a bad or evil man embarked upon a brilliant and determined campaign to redefine traditional values in such narrow terms as to exclude most of us from consequential citizenship. Without denying the harmful effects, for example, of his slap-dash anticommunism, and recognizing that he does display malice and meanness, I think that interpretation breaks down for one basic reason: Nixon is neither that imaginative nor coherent. Being evil is a heavy trip.

A second analysis explains Nixon as first and always a politician. While admitting that he is guided by a few general values (such as capitalism and a distorted Protestant piety), and differing among themselves about his ability to deal with real issues and problems, these Nixonologists agree that he acts largely to obtain and retain public office. One gets the impression, for example, that Dwight David Eisenhower made that estimate of Nixon—giving him a B in shallowness and a D in leadership. A good bit of Nixon’s career can be explained by this political analysis, and his trips to China and Russia have revived its appeal after his earlier behavior as President had raised serious questions about its accuracy.

That approach has a major weakness, however, because defining a man as a politician does not—in and of itself—tell us how and why he responds to public moods and pressures (or to advice from confidants). It is not convincing to meet that objection by calling Nixon a pure politician (for whom office is all) who occasionally makes a mistake. He is neither that stupid nor that inexperienced, and his gaffes do follow a pattern. The strongest statements of the political analysis have been offered by Ralph de Toledano and Garry Wills, who explain Nixon as the politician as self-made man.

Wills has attracted more attention because he offers an elaborate discussion of market place individualism and liberalism, because he digresses at great length on various current issues (Nixon disappears for pages on end), and because he is sympathetically critical instead of simply sympathetic. But one cannot read the books consecutively without becoming aware of their important similarities. Toledano’s book (the earlier) is a hopper car full of data, and his interpretation is basically the same …

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