Books: 'The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon', by Anthony Summersby R. J. Stove (reviewer)News Weekly
, September 8, 2001
THE ARROGANCE OF POWER: The Secret World of Richard Nixon
by Anthony Summers
Rec. price: $39.95
Reading this gigantic volume is so much like stepping into a 1970s time-warp that one half-expects its author's name to be Austin Powers. Long after the rest of the world has moved on from blaming all the world's ills on Watergate, along comes Anthony Summers, obsessed with proving that Tricky Dick vomited green slime from birth, travelled via broomstick, and conducted human sacrifices in his back garden.
The fact that even Summers' fellow leftists (most famously Stephen Ambrose) have abandoned this vitriol exercises no restraining influence whatever on Summers' spleen. Perhaps smarting from reviewers' invective towards his 1993 life of J. Edgar Hoover - which, citing evidence about as reliable as Alger Hiss', accused its subject of transvestism - Summers devotes fully one-fifth of his latest effort to listing his sources. Alas, he proves how limited archival research's value becomes when the attitudes underlying such research preclude adequate awareness.
Central to Summers' mythology is the concept of "Nixon Agonistes" (Alistair Cooke's vivid description) as a genuine right-winger, this notion being so weird that in itself it sabotages the book. Genuine, in terms of usually believing his public philosophy, Nixon might have been; right-wing he was not. Real right-wingers - Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, the John Birch Society - had Nixon's measure from the early 1960s, and acidulously rejected him. Only alongside Eisenhower's tireless indulgence towards Communism could Nixon's doctrine (standard boilerplate stuff, also readily heard in its essence from Midwestern Democrats of the Hubert Humphrey type, and even from the Kennedys) appear novel. This fact is so well-known that simply needing to cite it makes any reviewer feel ashamed, but Summers writes without the smallest apparent consciousness of it.
He writes without the smallest apparent consciousness of rather a lot else, actually. Obsessed by My Lai and other American atrocities during the Vietnam war - you won't find hide nor hair of an allusion to the Vietcong wiping out, at Hué in May 1968, 4,000 peasants instead of Lieutenant Calley's 400 - Summers loftily ignores virtually all Nixon's non-Watergate domestic initiatives.
No reader would guess from Summers that the Nixon era committed America even more firmly to Big Government than the New Deal and Great Society had done. (When Nixon announced that "We are all Keynesians now", he wasn't talking about the economist's sexual preferences.) The Administration's prices and incomes controls, along with its 1971 debauching of the currency through abandonment of the quasi-gold standard in force since World War II's end, might as well have happened in Tierra del Fuego for all the notice Summers takes of them.
Rather than serious - or any - exegesis of Nixon's taste for ruling by economic fiat, Summers offers us lucubrations about Watergate, Watergate, Watergate, Watergate and Watergate, with (for variety) an occasional interlude on Watergate. The better to concentrate on this topic, he skimps coverage not only of Nixon's formative years (in which he lacks all interest, save when they offer him opportunities for more than usually half-baked pop-psychologising) but of Nixon's Vice-Presidency, which captured friends' and enemies' imagination in a way that no subsequent Veep's tenure, except perhaps Al Gore's, has ever done.
Summers also has little to say about the history-defining 1960 TV debates between Nixon and Kennedy, though at least he has now brought under passable control his erstwhile fondness for salivating affectionately over all aspects of Camelot.
In characteristic fashion, Summers minimises the contrast between Nixon's exceptionally articulate intelligence - his prose, like it or not, was at least his own work - and the fraud, to put it charitably, through which JFK again and again stole credit for others' authorship.
Moreover, odious though Nixon's behaviour to his wife appears to have often been, it cannot compare in sustained mendacity with JFK's clandestine wedding (to a divorcée - nice Catholic boy, our Jack) six years before tying the knot with Jacqueline Bouvier. Still, while in the Summers schema the Kennedys of this world might be a little lower than the angels, "right-wingers" alone can perpetrate downright dirty tricks.
In fairness we should acknowledge that a handful of Nixon's non-Watergate domestic activities arouse genuine concern on Summers' part. Whenever incriminating audio-tapes show Nixon to have expressed himself less than graciously about Jews, blacks and college students, Summers' rebukes become as righteously offended as any modest maiden's reproaches in a Victorian melodrama: "Unhand me, monster!"
He reveals much less wrath about other ultra vires
initiatives on Nixon's part: notably sooling the taxman onto political opponents, a procedure in which the great man merely mimicked every Chief Executive since Roosevelt the Second. But no-one as passionately committed as Summers to ordering the human race about - provided, of course, that he and his kind get to do the ordering - can logically protest overmuch against Nixon thereby giving Nanny Statism a helping hand.
Rather than inflicting further behemoths like Summers' upon the paying public, publishers might usefully consider filling a hole in the Nixon market that no scholar has discernibly noticed, let alone plugged: a comprehensive, up-to-date account of how non
-American public opinion regarded Watergate. The average British, French, German or Italian newspaper reader of 1973-74 must have suspected that terrorists had laced Washington's water supply with Mandrax.
Interpreting a two-bit burglary, by slapstick villains straight from Central Casting, as some kind of heinous evil struck foreigners as bizarre enough in itself; driving Nixon from office for doing what a Harold Wilson, a Georges Pompidou, a Helmut Schmidt or an Aldo Moro would have been driven from office for not
doing, furnished absolute proof to millions of Europeans that across the Atlantic the loonies had taken over the bughouse.