Nixon, The Face In America's Mirror


By Tom Wicker

Random House -- 731pp -- $24.95

The prospect of a leading liberal columnist--not to mention one who made Richard M. Nixon's enemies list--gushing that he was wrong about Tricky Dick is titillating enough. But there's much more than that to One of Us, Tom Wicker's effort to come to terms with the former President. As a young reporter 34 years ago, Wicker passed Nixon in the U. S. Capitol late at night. He became haunted by the expression of the man who would come to define three decades of U. S. politics. His guard down, Nixon was "too self-absorbed to present the facade with which most of us guard the truth of that inner self we rarely share with anyone," Wicker writes. "What, in that dark face, had I seen?"

In this book, The New York Times pundit answers the question without even interviewing his subject. He concludes that Nixon was a far better President than most people give him credit for, and he's right. And after you've read One of Us, you'll see a lot of Nixon in George Bush. To hear that said of a privileged product of the Ivy League might drive Nixon crazy. But in the way he conducts policy and in the style of his Presidency, Bush is more Nixon's heir than Ronald Reagan's.

Wicker does with Nixon what Shakespeare did with the hunchback King Richard III, what Orson Welles did with William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane. O. K., so the guy had a dark side--but look at what this dark side drove him to achieve. Wicker virtually dismisses Watergate. Starting with Abraham Lincoln, he argues, the power of the President expanded so much that by the time Nixon reached office, "Watergate er something equally disreputable was a disaster waiting to happen."

What Wicker sees in Nixon--and what he believes the American public saw--is "one of us." Forget that John F. Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960. For Kennedy--the handsome, charming millionaire's son--beating Nixon should have been easy. Kennedy was the nation's "romantic dream of itself." That Nixon, who represented a "harder and clearer national self-assessment," came so close to winning (and in fact probably did, but for some vote-rigging in Chicago) is the real story, Wicker suggests.

In Nixon, the middle-class son of a saintly mother and a loud, nasty, Black Irish father, Americans saw "themselves as they knew they were . . . working and scheming without let to achieve their dreams, soured by the inequities of life." Asks Wicker: "Which of us in the nation- al rush to get ahead has never cut a corner or winked at the law?"

But Wicker doesn't just philosophize. Through painstaking research, he rethinks Nixon. In part, he corrects the record, reexamining every turning point in Nixon's life, including his 1950 Senate race against Helen Gahagan Douglas and the Alger Hiss episode. In part, he offers insight. He doesn't deny that Nixon was in many ways wicked, but he tempers that view with understanding. He shows us how Nixon was hurt and made paranoid when Dwight D. Eisenhower twice entertained dumping him as a running mate. He depicts the hurdles this grocer's kid cleared to become President. He gives us an ambiguous but ultimately sympathetic Nixon, who didn't challenge the 1960 election results because he so revered the Presidency, who didn't erase the damning Watergate tapes because to do so would be wrong.

Wicker's analysis of Nixon's policies is also intriguing. While Nixon still touts his contributions to foreign policy, Wicker counts only the opening of China a success. Nixon's attempt to get out of Vietnam was disastrous, in Wicker's view, and his efforts at detente with the Soviet Union went nowhere. On the other hand, Wicker believes Nixon's domestic achievements have been underrated. From great strides in school desegregation to creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, Nixon's Presidency, in hindsight, looks like the "most progressive" of the postwar era. Wicker writes: "His most fundamental economic choice was not the usual Republican preference for price stability and `sound money' but an effort to keep ordinary Americans at work and on the payroll."

Wicker's insights into Nixon's political battles are on target, but his insights into his personality are even better. He has an eye for the telling anecdote. For example, he describes how Nixon, when spat upon during a visit to Venezuela as Vice-President, began kicking one of his attackers. That's understandable, Wicker allows. But Nixon first had one of his aides hold the man down.

Wicker doesn't flinch from glimpses of Nixon's "black id." He shows us Nixon during the Hiss probe, screaming about his ruined career. He gives us Nixon as President, letting henchman H. R. Haldeman relegate Nixon's faithful secretary, Rosemary Woods, to a basement office. But some of Nixon's volatility was put on, Wicker writes. The man many came to view as unbalanced boasted that he encouraged other heads of state to see him as a "madman who could not be predicted."

At heart, Nixon was a "repressed intellectual . . . forcing himself into the fancied mold of a typical middle-class American," says Wicker. Of course he seemed weird. "Nixon the politician was pretending to be worse than he was, not better." His success was built on a "calculated presentation of a public persona that . . . distorted the essential Nixon."

Wicker has produced a provocative, beautifully written reassessment. Whether you despised Nixon or feel he got lynched, you won't think about him the same way after reading One of Us.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE