by Philip Roth
Random House, 200 pp., $5.95
It was Proust, I think, who was observed listening with so much concentration to Anatole France discoursing upon the Almighty that a bystander was impelled to remark, “Marcel, I did not know you were so interested in God.” Proust replied, “I am not especially interested in God, but I am very interested in M. Anatole France.” In that spirit, we are less interested in President Nixon than we are in Mr. Philip Roth.
It has to be said that Our Gang is a very lame journey indeed for someone we have grown used to see running across the rooftops. The final effect is not seriously disturbing: talent has every right to indulge itself and retains every promise of recovering from distractions. Still, this is a dreary interlude. The parodist is here defeated by an original who is endlessly capable of inventing parodies of himself that are far beyond the imagination of even the best of us. Roth’s point of departure is so perfect a fragment of Nixonry that it is enough to be grateful for the eye that has preserved it without demanding too much from the hand that tries to imitate it. Mr. Nixon declared the day after he ordered Lieutenant Calley released from the stockade:
From personal and religious beliefs, I consider abortions an unacceptable form of population control. Furthermore, unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand, I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life—including the life of the yet unborn. For, surely, the unborn have rights also, recognized in law, recognized even in principles expounded by the United Nations.
That passage so perfectly traces the peregrinations of this little wandering soul that it leaves the imagination too small a range for going beyond it. For Mr. Nixon seems to be one of those cases where only the person himself can describe himself. He is certainly not the first of our Presidents to perfume the brutal with the pious; most of us, I suppose, would put Thomas Jefferson among those who said the fewest things that could leave a gentleman embarrassed. Yet here is Henry Adams, vindictive but just, reminding us of President Jefferson’s first message to Congress:
The Message began by announcing, in contrast with the expectations of Republicans, that while Europe had returned to peace the United States had begun a war, and that a hostile cruiser had been captured “after a heavy slaughter of her men.” The Federalist wits made fun of the moral which the President added to soften the announcement of such an event: “The bravery exhibited by our citizens on that element will, I trust, be a testimony to the world that it is not the want of that virtue which makes us seek their peace, but a conscientious desire to direct the energies of our nation to the multiplication of the human race, and not to its destruction.”
What makes Mr. Nixon unique is the way he can on occasion replace the normal …