It’s easy to pick on Richard Nixon. The list of his crimes, aspersions against his character, and embarrassments he forced on this country is long enough that it could take up this entire review. He was a blight on the office he felt so entitled to. He is the avatar for nefarious public officials limited by a base cunning and furtive guile. His promise was ambrosia; his delivery: brinksmanship. Richard Nixon savored attention, but skulked in the darkness of public derision. Every friend was an enemy not yet born, every foe had the face of millions. He trusted no one, and was despised by all. Richard Nixon was the negative of his era; his fall in 1960 was the counterpoint to the rise of Camelot, and his ascendancy in 1968 was a perverse reflection of the death of hope and birth of cynicism. Richard Nixon is what happens when our bleak alternate timeline merges to become the only reality we have.
This is the narrative we’ve been sold these last 40 years, and it fairly sums up Tim Weiner’s perspective.
Only….I don’t know. It’s not that I disagree with the fundamental premise, it’s that I don’t think it’s that simple. Life seldom actually is.
For what is Richard Nixon but a harbinger of what followed? Can we fairly condemn him for things that have become so commonplace as to seem unremarkable?
Inheriting a war that was not of his own creation, Richard Nixon ran on a platform of peace, only to derail the 1968 peace talks between the Johnson administration and Vietnam with the promise that he would be able to provide better terms upon his ascendancy. After winning the election, he not only didn’t continue the peace talks, he expanded the conflict by pushing the war into Laos and Cambodia, and instituting a massive bombing campaign in the North. Contrast this with Barack Obama, who campaigned on a paradigm shift centered on an aversion to the warmongering under George W. Bush – who was actually responsible for the timetable of withdrawal from Iraq. After assuming office, Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan, greatly expanding drone warfare across the Muslim world (bombing nearly twice as many nations as his predecessor), overthrew the regime in Libya while assisting in the attempted overthrow of the regime in Syria (not to mention the involvement in Ukraine), and (as I write this) has escalated re-engagement in Iraq from “military advisers” to actual boots on the ground (an eventuality he disavowed, previously).
The legacy of Richard Nixon is forever tarnished by his obsession with leaks from within his administration, and he was famous for the burning rage that would consume him after every precious bit of information would find it’s way into the papers. President Obama, of course, spoke out many times for the necessity for transparency in government, but has prosecuted more Americans under the Espionage Act than all presidents before him. Combined. Pair this with the warrantless wiretapping under Nixon and mass collection of metadata under both Bush and Obama, and it’s hard to see how Nixon is particularly unique in the lack of respect he showed the rights of US citizens.
My point is not to say that Obama is as bad as Nixon, but if other presidents are guilty of many of the things that Nixon did, should we continue to demonize him so completely?
This book does not attempt to look at the Nixon years with fresh eyes. I strongly felt that Weiner came into this with a marked distaste for the disgraced president. Relying on copious records recently declassified (including many of the infamous White House recordings), Tim Weiner’s research is thorough and (I think) fairly unquestionable. But his writing is filled with editorialization that feels, to me, unnecessary and discriminatory.
I acknowledge that the failure here may be one of expectations. I shouldn’t blame Weiner for not writing the book I wanted to read. But there’s something particularly unsavory about rehashing this tired trope that leaves me indifferent to my inability to give this book a fair consideration.
My problem is that he glosses over the successes of the Nixon administration (there were surprisingly many) for the excesses of the man. It’s not that this is a bankrupt subject, it’s that we’ve been down this road before. I think there is a great deal to be said about the man and his administration, but it’s so often overshadowed by Watergate. I realize that I may be the lone voice calling for a re-evaluation of Richard Nixon, but he’s a rich enough subject to warrant it, I think.
While that book may be out there, it wasn’t written by Tim Weiner.