1999: Victory Without War
At age seventy-five, Richard Nixon still seems to be evading an important truth about himself: the reason he remains such a fascinating figure is not that Americans are looking to him for foreign policy advice. There are plenty of policy experts, but there is only one Nixon. Nixon is engrossing as a politician who has endured astonishing ups and downs, who never gives up, and who still has the mind of a canny political operator. The most interesting and newsworthy parts of his public appearances this spring were not his observations about world affairs but his purely political comments—why Jackson was unexpectedly strong, why Bush remains weak, how big an issue the “sleaze factor” would be for the Democrats. If he wanted, Nixon could be a panelist much in demand on Washington’s political talk shows.
But Nixon has not been content to be seen as just a politician. He wants to be remembered as a foreign policy expert and grand strategist. His new book is the sixth he’s published since leaving office, and like most of the others it resolutely sticks to big issues in foreign policy. Nixon’s desire to cast himself as a statesman is understandable; if he can do so, he could help offset the blemishes on his record. (At one wistful moment in the book, Nixon says that foreign policy experience should be the only criterion in choosing a president. This could be seen as a plug for George Bush, but of course it is mainly a plea for a kinder look at himself.) Still, sticking to the artificially high road of policy makes Nixon strangely less impressive than he could otherwise be. As this book reveals, he doesn’t really have much to say about foreign policy. When his advice makes sense, it’s familiar and conventional—and when it is original, it’s often unbalanced or even wacky.
The main theme of Nixon’s new book is his continuing fixation on US-Soviet relations. This subject takes up only half of the book, but it accounts for about nine tenths of its passion. The only other subject Nixon seems to care about is China, and even there he keeps steering the discussion back to the implications of Chinese developments for the US-Soviet struggle.
Obviously superpower relations are important, because of the threat of nuclear war, because of what the cold war has already done to each country’s economy, and so on. But Nixon seems to have lost his sense of proportion about the other elements that determine America’s place in the world. He plainly could not care less about economics or about the part of America’s strength that depends on trade, capital formation, new technology, and so on. In his hour long Meet the Press appearance in April, he explained the importance of economic strength in one pithy sentence: “Now, we can talk all we want about how we can distribute wealth, but if we don’t have people …