Among those who came to his funeral were President Clinton and four former presidents: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. He had no doubt that he was superior to them all. Admittedly, Watergate—“that silly, silly thing”—had been a lapse, but in his opinion, when it came to presidential business that truly mattered, not one of those eminent mourners was in the same league with Richard Nixon.
Monica Crowley thinks so, too. The conviction has prompted her to issue two memoirs creating a portrait of Nixon, as the title of her second book puts it, in the winter of his life. The burden of them is that he was a far more admirable figure than widely supposed, a president who got a dirty deal from powerful forces—“armies of enemies”—who hated him. Hers is not the Nixon of the Watergate tapes, but a genial, complicated, avuncular old fellow in whom most of the bile, not all but most, is spent.
She has nothing new to report on Watergate, but who has? The familiar defenses are mounted again. They all did it, Nixon was the victim of an unfair double standard, and so forth. For historians there is nothing of consequence, either, in what Nixon said to her about the Vietnam War, the Cambodian invasion, or the secretive foreign policy in which he connived with an equally manipulative Henry Kissinger.
What is irresistible, however, is the powerful sense she conveys of Nixon’s personality when he was playing the endgame of his long struggle to come back from disgrace. This results from her use of extensive quotations. We often seem to be listening to yet another batch of Nixon tapes or, perhaps, tapes of another Nixon so different from the Watergate tapes that he seems to have undergone a character transformation. It is gossipy, outrageous, comical, fascinating, entertaining, delightful stuff.
To evaluate Crowley’s Nixon, it helps to know something about Crowley herself. She worked for him for the last four years of his life, and her devotion clearly bordered on adoration. She was twenty-one when she started: Nixon was seventy-seven, old enough to have been her grandfather. She was born in 1968, the year he was elected president. Her first memory of him was of watching his televised announcement that he was resigning the presidency. She was then five years old.
He had been out of office some fifteen years when they first met. He had spent every one of those years laboring to rebuild a reputation shattered by Watergate. These labors included a tireless book-writing program. The books presented him as a sage elder statesman whose knowledge and experience of great events could be invaluable to the nation, if Washington would only bring him out of exile and heed his messages. Discussing a work-in-progress with Crowley, he told her, “I’m writing this book not because I need to do it for myself but because the country needs to hear this kind of realism from me.” Years had passed with no one who counted listening to his realism.
Still, he went to the end without giving up. During Crowley’s brief time with him, he traveled to Russia and China, no idle journeys for a man teetering at the edge of eighty. Comically, in Russia he infuriated Boris Yeltsin by meeting with Yeltsin’s political opponents. Yeltsin reacted by cutting off Nixon’s transportation and security privileges and canceling his appointments with government people. Afterward, at 5 AM in Moscow, Nixon phoned Crowley in America, telling her, “Yeltsin, of course, had had a few when he erupted at me. That’s well-known.”
Crowley is miffed about the Watergate affair. Such a fuss! And why? Because “armies of enemies” made a “relentless attack on him, even as others commit crimes as egregious and are allowed to survive.” Yes, “he helped with his own hanging,” but “we claimed his political scalp as a prize to show that those wrenching years [the 1960s] produced at least one ostensibly righteous result. In him, we found a receptacle for all of our self-hatred and misguided upheaval. In his wrongdoing, we found shelter from our own.”
Nixon died for our sins?
Well, Crowley is unhampered by experience of the many Nixons who thrived between the Murray Chotiner “pink-slip” campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas and the “smoking gun.” Then, too, given a chance for long, close-up study of an aging historical figure, it would be a strange scholar indeed who spoiled it all by applying a gimlet eye to the old man, and Crowley seems to have been a precocious scholar. In her junior year at Colgate, she wrote Nixon a long, analytical, occasionally critical letter about his book 1999: Victory Without War. He invited her to visit, was impressed, and hired her to help in his writings on foreign affairs. She thinks he fancied her as a useful instrument for improving his reputation in history:
I believe he trusted me because he saw me as a liaison between himself and future generations, someone to whom he could tell his story one last time and upon whom he could rely to relate that story to others…. With the end of life coming ever closer, he felt an inescapable need to have his final say before a new generation, to cement the comeback….
Although she must have gussied up Nixon’s grammar to eliminate natural conversational stutters, her Nixon sounds like the genuine article. He blusters, fumes, feels sorry for himself, worries about the nation’s moral decay, talks trenchantly about politics and foreign affairs, reminisces about old triumphs, repeatedly declares he will not “wallow in Watergate,” complains incessantly about the unjust media, and goes on and on about his “enemies,” those beloved, hateful, indispensable “enemies” so essential to his view of politics as a blood sport.
“Why do you think people hate me?” he asked Crowley out of the blue one day. Then: “The problem with [then President] Bush is that no one hates him. An effective leader needs enemies because then you know you’re doing something right.”
Nixon had a positive lust for enemies. One of the more absurd moments of his presidency was the drawing up of the famous “enemies list” of persons who, in the lexicon of the Watergate Nixon, would be “screwed.” The person who should have been at the top of the list wasn’t even on it. He was, of course, Richard Nixon. As Watergate demonstrated, he was clearly the most deadly enemy he had.
The considerable pleasures of Crowley’s book come from the guilty sense that we are eavesdropping while he talks, and talks, and talks to what he believes to be an audience of one. Crowley is not troubled about reporting these confidential conversations. She believes he wanted her to speak to posterity in his behalf, but there is a great deal here that seems delightfully indiscreet for such a secretive man. Did Nixon really want his contempt for President Bush widely broadcast? Poor Bush. As Crowley tells it, he could do nothing to suit Nixon. The old master of foreign policy was outraged by Bush’s handling of foreign affairs, and especially about his 1990 friendliness toward the Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.
“Has Bush lost his mind?” Nixon asked Crowley when Bush did not try to shake Lithuania out of the Soviet bloc. “…He isn’t moving an inch on Lithuania. He just keeps letting his friend Gorbachev roll over the poor place.”
Another time: “The guy’s got no guts. He just doesn’t have it.”
And: “I think it’s nauseating that the media have proclaimed Bush a newly strong leader.” Bush had been “seduced by Gorbachev.” He was “too soft on Gorbachev.”
Nixon despised Bush’s secretary of state, James A. Baker: “Bad news,” he called him. “There is no vision there with Bush and certainly not with Baker. Baker was overrated as a strategist, and now he’s in totally over his head with foreign policy. He just looks like an amateur out there with [Soviet foreign minister Eduard] Shevardnadze, holding his hand and sounding like he has no backbone. And Bush isn’t much better. There is no grand thinking going on over there, no vision. They call it crisis management; I call it lack of leadership.”
Even Bush’s haberdashery irked Nixon: “I wish Bush wouldn’t talk about serious issues looking like he does. They catch him coming off the golf course, no tie, baseball cap—my God! Put on a tie! He should be dressed formally when discussing something as important as this [Soviet relations]. I always wore a suit—perhaps too much. I know it, but I was comfortable in it, and it was appropriate.”
Nixon, who made “expletive deleted” a household phrase, was offended by Bush’s locker-room talk about Saddam Hussein: “I cannot believe that Bush said ‘We’ll kick Saddam Hussein’s ass.’ Can you picture Gorbachev saying ‘We’ll kick ass in the republics’?”
It would be entertaining to hear him speak with equal candor about Ronald Reagan. It might have been poisonous. Soft as Bush was on Gorbachev, he told Crowley, Reagan would have “gone even farther.” This, however, is the only judgment Crowley quotes on the Gipper.
Gerald Ford, his pardoner, receives a brief commendation: “And poor Ford. The pardon was the kiss of death politically, and he still did it. You’ve got to admire his guts on that score.”
Exiled, shamed, and ignored through the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations, he was astonished to find the Democrat Clinton extending a friendly hand. Shortly after taking office, Clinton phoned for a forty-minute chat. Crowley suggests Nixon was euphoric.
…Most surprising—he confided in me; he said things that he absolutely would not want made public. I wonder if his wiretaps are working!
He was very respectful but with no sickening bullshit…. It was the best conversation with a president I’ve had since I was president…. It was never a dialogue with the others. I used to have to force things into the conversation with Reagan and Bush. This was a different cup of tea…. This guy does a lot of thinking.
Nixon seized the occasion to preach the importance of foreign policy, the area in which he considered himself a foremost authority. Did he immediately fancy himself becoming Clinton’s wise man in foreign policy? “As long as he is talking to me, he’ll be OK,” he told Crowley. “If he relies on his Carter-type advisers, he will run into trouble.”
Clinton invited him to the White House. It was a milestone in the long journey back toward respectability. Reagan and Bush had never done him this symbolic honor.
Eavesdropping, courtesy of Crowley, we learn what he thought of Robert McNamara (“typical elite intellectual type—cold and mean”); of Ted Koppel (“anti-Nixon all the way”); of foreign service officers (“the pits,” “all bad,” “all liberals, Democrats,” but “usually they don’t do too much damage”); of United Nations speeches (“worthless, but the media love that fluff”); of domestic economic problems (“let’s face it, very boring”).