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Richard M. Nixon by Elizabeth Drew
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Elizabeth Drew brought considerable experience as a political journalist and author to this biography of Richard Nixon, her contribution to the American Presidents series that was edited by Arthur Schlesinger. Her account is accurate in its factual details, and manages to cover in ~150 pages most of the major points (both high and low) of Nixon's professional life. This she does by drawing heavily on four recent biographies of Nixon, and many other secondary sources, as revealed by her frequent bibliographic citations.

However, her view of Richard Nixon is unmistakably partisan. Indeed, the man that emerges from her portrait is perhaps smart and talented, yet cynical, unprincipled, manipulative, conniving, foul-mouthed, racist, suspicious, paranoid, remote, unloved, lonely, and haunted. His much - vaunted political skills and foreign policy acumen are largely dismissed, as is his attempt to remake himself into an elder statesman after his resignation. Even Nixon's foreign policy successes (the opening to China, arms control) are viewed with a jaundiced eye. In another writer's hands, the same material would reveal a resilient, visionary man who (whatever his character flaws, and notwithstanding Nixon's expansion of the brutal war in southeast Asia) overcame his own past as a red-baiting opportunist to establish ties with his nation's two chief international rivals, and who (unlike many of today's Republicans) saw government as a means by which the lives of ordinary Americans might be improved. One might also consider whether his political downfall and resignation resulted as much from overzealous and inexperienced aides as from his own actions.

The point is that what one sees in this complex, divisive figure is strongly influenced by one's predilections and prejudices. Drew is too opinionated about her subject to view him with the dispassion of mature historical scholarship. The problem is not that she has a strong point of view and asserts it, but rather, that her account never raises the possibility of alternative viewpoints. In an NPR interview, Drew reportedly stated that she wrote this book to counter the growing nostalgia for the Nixon presidency. Her agenda is evident throughout. Overall, this book is factually accurate, but a more nuanced and dispassionate account would have been more credible from a scholarly standpoint.

Readers familiar with any of the previous Nixon biographies, of which there are many, will find few revelations in Drew's book. One such relevation may be the unsupported allegation (previously revealed in Anthony Summers' The Arrogance of Power) that Nixon was taking excessive (unprescribed) doses of Dilantin as an anti-anxiety agent -- the evidence is weak enough that it's hard to see why Drew considers it worth repeating, unless to sully the name of her subject. Another revelation (borrowed from Summers' book and elsewhere) is the direct evidence that Nixon secretly sabotaged Pres. Johnson's Vietnam peace talks in 1968 by urging South Vietnam's President Thieu to withdraw -- thereby helping his own candidacy for president. That this latter action is considered literally treasonous by some legal scholars, oddly, goes unmentioned in Drew's book.

As a brief introduction to Richard Nixon, Elizabeth Drew's book is serviceable, but a less partisan work would have better served the purposes of Schlesinger's presidental series. What's more, the author's sometimes awkward prose would have benefitted from some aggressive editing. Nevertheless, Drew's portrait implicitly offers a clear answer to the rhetorical question with which she closes her book, that being whether this "most peculiar and haunted of presidents was fit to occupy the most powerful office in the nation." Future historians may note this work as evidence of how divisive and controversial Richard Nixon remained 33 years after the end of his 5.5 year presidency. ( )
3 vote danielx | Sep 17, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805069631, Hardcover)

The complex man at the center of America's most self-destructive presidency
 
In this provocative and revelatory assessment of the only president ever forced out of office, the legendary Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew explains how Richard M. Nixon's troubled inner life offers the key to understanding his presidency. She shows how Nixon was surprisingly indecisive on domestic issues and often wasn't interested in them. Turning to international affairs, she reveals the inner workings of Nixon's complex relationship with Henry Kissinger, and their mutual rivalry and distrust. The Watergate scandal that ended his presidency was at once an overreach of executive power and the inevitable result of his paranoia and passion for vengeance.

Even Nixon's post-presidential rehabilitation was motivated by a consuming desire for respectability, and he succeeded through his remarkable resilience. Through this book we finally understand this complicated man. While giving him credit for his achievements, Drew questions whether such a man--beleaguered, suspicious, and motivated by resentment and paranoia--was fit to hold America's highest office, and raises large doubts that he was.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:06:03 -0400)

The complex man at the center of America's most self-destructive presidency. In this revelatory assessment of the only president ever forced out of office, Washington journalist Drew explains how Nixon's troubled inner life offers the key to understanding his presidency. She shows how Nixon was surprisingly indecisive on domestic issues and often wasn't interested in them. Turning to international affairs, she reveals the inner workings of Nixon's complex relationship with Henry Kissinger, and their mutual rivalry and distrust. The Watergate scandal that ended his presidency was both an overreach of executive power and the inevitable result of his paranoia and passion for vengeance. Even Nixon's post-presidential rehabilitation was motivated by a consuming desire for respectability, and he succeeded through his remarkable resilience. While giving him credit for his achievements, Drew questions whether such a man--beleaguered, suspicious, and motivated by resentment and paranoia--was fit to hold America's highest office.--From publisher description.… (more)

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