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BOOK REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY : Cut From the Same Cloth and Born to Run : KENNEDY & NIXON: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America by Christopher Matthews;Simon & Schuster $25, 377 pages

May 27, 1996|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The dramatic lives of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon continue to fascinate their countrymen.

Now the political writer Christopher Matthews, columnist and Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, has taken a run at their intertwined stories.

Matthews has managed to produce an entertaining book from the voluminous material published about their lives. Some of it is unfamiliar, and Matthews makes the most of it.

He finds in the school experiences of each, for instance, patterns of behavior and attitude that marked each of them all their lives.

Here is Nixon arriving at Whittier College at 17:

"The entire life of the Whittier campus," Matthews writes, "revolved around a social elite known as the Franklins. The rest of the student body seemed resigned to its exclusion. . . .

"Nixon, just 17, rejected the yoke. He organized a rival social club of precisely those rejected by the Franklins: the poor students who had to work their way through school, the football linemen, and others judged too awkward or unattractive for the elite fraternity."

Nixon's club mates called themselves the Orthogonians. The new club became larger than the old and Nixon went on to defeat a Franklin for student body president.

Matthews finds a pattern here, in which "the Nixonian rage derived its strength from the same Orthogonian resentment."

For instance, running for Congress in 1946, Nixon "pointed to the elite holding power, then raised an army of the excluded against it" by beating Rep. Jerry Voorhis.

Well, that's a neat construction, but that's not quite the way it was. Nixon, campaigning against Voorhis as the captive of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, had the support of the Republican establishment, including this newspaper and its publisher.

But as Matthews shows, if Nixon had the support of powerful and rich businessmen, he played to the little guy, as in 1968 when he bid for the votes of Southern whites angry about desegregation as if their resentments were his own.

As for Kennedy's school experience, Matthews finds his metaphor at Kennedy's New England prep school, Choate.

One day the headmaster derided those without the proper Choate spirit as "Muckers," slang for the local Irish American ditch diggers. Kennedy organized a group of friends to play havoc with the proprieties at Choate. And, yes, "Kennedy went on to defeat the chairman of the student council in a contest for the Choate senior 'most likely to succeed.' "

Matthews argues that throughout his career, Kennedy showed the same contempt for the old liberal Democratic establishment as he had for the Choate elders. Matthews quotes Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee: "He hated the liberals."

As Matthews says, the careers of the two politicians were remarkably similar. Both served in World War II. Both were first elected to the House in 1946. Both played hardball politics from the beginning. Each used the communist scare of the postwar years with little scruple. Both shared the assumptions of the Cold War; yet each tried to move beyond it.

Both took the New Deal for granted; neither was at the extreme edge of his party.

In the 1946 election, Kennedy ran as a "fighting conservative"; Nixon, as a candidate committed to "practical liberalism."

Matthews shrewdly notes the similarities, but sometimes his metaphors are a bit fancy. It's amusing to think of Kennedy as Mozart and the ever-envious Nixon as Salieri in Peter Shaffer's play and movie "Amadeus," as Matthews does, but when you think about it, it just doesn't work. The comparison unjustly exalts Kennedy, whose career was cut so short, and unfairly puts down Nixon, whose positive achievements were substantial.

Yet there is no doubt that in a Salieri-like way, Nixon was obsessed with the Kennedys, with their glamour, their self-assurance, their money.

The characters of the rivals come through in Matthews' book. Kennedy is always self-assured; Nixon, ever ill at ease.

Yet the book perhaps misses one important characteristic the two men had in common. Cynical though they could be, flawed though they were, both of them were serious about being president, and both men had large ideas about the country they were trying to lead.

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