The Book Club

“Balance, Direction and Forward Thrust.’

Man, when they called Vietnam a quagmire, they were right! I keep trying to get out of Southeast Asia and move on to other aspects of the Nixon presidency, but you won’t let me. Later in this e-mail I’ll happily return to the many places we agree, but first I want to again take issue with your position on Vietnam and Cambodia. 

About JFK. First of all, is Nixon ever going to stop losing to his nemesis? I mean, Reeves is probably the last guy Nixon would have wanted to profile him, since his previous book was about JFK, which proves that he’s a Kennedy guy, and this new one offers a chiseled author photograph, which proves that he went to Harvard, or knows people who did. If Nixon were editing our exchange, you just know that our very use of the word “Kennedy” in this review would have us both on an enemies list tucked away in Rosemary Wood’s capacious file cabinet. Kennedy!

But onto the substance of our disagreement: It’s not fair to call Vietnam “Kennedy’s war.” There’s no way he would have escalated at the rate LBJ did. True, there are grounds to believe that he would have stayed involved at some level (repeated mantras at press conferences). There are also grounds to believe that he would have pulled out (comments to close aides like Kenneth O’Donnell and a TV interview near the end of his life insisting it was ultimately a Vietnamese, not American, problem). 

But why would a realist like Kennedy, badly burned at the Bay of Pigs, suddenly give a green light to the Pentagon and increase by many levels the American commitment? At the end of 1963 there were 15,000 U.S. “advisers” in South Vietnam. Two years later, there were 200,000 U.S. personnel, and two years after that, 500,000. Kennedy was too smart for that. I agree with your point that JFK’s image in LBJ’s psychology led to greater involvement–but that doesn’t justify calling it Kennedy’s war. It’s exactly like what you said elsewhere in your e-mail–that we should avoid blurring the line between one episode (World War II) and something earlier that led to it (Versailles treaty). A good point, by the way.  

On Cambodia, I’ll stick to my argument that it was both illegal and immoral. You don’t have to be a State Department lawyer to know that it’s unlawful to bomb and invade a country you’re not at war against. And the Constitution requires our executives to consult Congress before arrogating war powers. Of course, many presidents have ignored that, but never with the complete shroud of secrecy that Nixon and Kissinger used to cloak their decisions. Congressional leaders, journalists, and even high-ranking military personnel (Secretary of the Air Force) were kept completely and contemptuously in the dark. And which Nixon lackey defended his legal right to perpetrate this fraud? The future Chief Justice of the United States, William H. Rehnquist (whom Nixon called “the clown” for his sideburns and colored shirts).  

I’ll concede your point that there was a nominal military goal in Cambodia. My argument was trying to say that the goal was poorly conceived and doomed to fail. But yes, there was a goal at one point, before entropy took over and we were deeper in the mud than ever. And by a strange Calvinist judgment, some of Nixon’s worst problems stemmed from the aftershocks of Cambodia–not just Kent State, but the decision to start eavesdropping on staff members after the Times exposed the bombings.

Now on to your many good arguments about the book’s bathetic humor and the sadness that takes over near the end. I couldn’t agree more. And in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, I’d like to give the second half of my e-mail the same title that Nixon gave his first official two-year report:  “Balance, Direction and Forward Thrust.”

Humor and sadness are strange to mention in juxtaposition, but you’re dead right that they’re both here. The humor comes from our sense that this highly intelligent politician is somewhat flawed–the sadness from our awareness that the flaw is fatal, and we have to pay the price.

There are so many unforgettable vignettes: his presidential memos to his wife about the height of the bedside table … his fear that the force of LBJ’s shower will knock him down … his constant writing of anonymous hate mail to media outlets … his disdain for “the impossible fags” of the State Department … his canceling of soup at state dinners after he spills down his shirt … his counting the number of Jews in different offices … his penchant for bowling alone long before there was a book with that title. 

All of these revelations start out quirky, even amusing, but their cumulative weight begins to overwhelm the reader, which may be why Reeves didn’t have the stomach to continue after 1973. The petty dislikes turn into pathological hatreds, and the petty misdemeanors turn into very serious crimes against the state. 

To Reeves’ credit, he understands that no voice is stronger or more damning that Nixon’s own. Some of the most powerful passages are straight from his mouth, as when he says, “This would be an easy job if you didn’t have to deal with people.” Or, “God, I hate spending time with intellectuals. There’s something feminine about them. I’d rather talk to an athlete.” 

Um, is there a psychological doctor in the house? I have no great admiration for Ronald Reagan, but give the guy credit, he couldn’t care less if Ivy Leaguers invited him to their parties and asked his opinion of Pablo Casals. They were irrelevant to him. Not only is that healthier, it’s a better way to fight back. I’d love to peer into history and learn what the original insult was that some Harvard nimrod mumbled to the young Richard Nixon, leaving him scarred and homicidal for the rest of his life. It’s got to go way deeper than just Kennedy and the Hiss crowd.

This book is not a novel, of course, but it does follow a rough trajectory as it takes a great talent from the height of his career toward disintegration and oblivion. Reading those angry lists that he kept writing on the yellow pads (you can almost hear the pencil grinding into the paper), I felt transported to The Great Gatsby.  Here’s one sequence:

“Knows more than anyone else. Towers above advisers. World leader.” 

“Restoration of Dignity. Family man–Not a playboy–respects office too much–but fun.” 

“Extraordinary intelligence–memory–Idealism–Love of country–Concern for old–poor–Refusal to exploit.”

“Yet must be personal and warm.”

I think that’s where the sadness comes in. There’s something elementally American about this loser working so hard to rise in the world, then utterly defeating himself by failing to suppress the demons that helped him rise in the first place. 

Herman Melville, who knew all about murderous Quakers, posed a hard challenge in The Confidence Man when he suggested that Emerson’s frilly arguments about self-reliance could lead someone into a relentless rage against society. Nixon would loathe the arcane reference. But I hope he would appreciate the compliment that no one was strong enough to defeat him except Richard Nixon. He says as much in his haunting farewell speech–really the best one he ever gave–when he concludes, “Always remember–others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” 

Thanks for honest exchange, Chris. I hope others get as much out of this book as we did.