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'Kennedy & Nixon': A Historical Cover-Up : NONFICTION : KENNEDY & NIXON: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, By Christopher Matthews (Simon & Schuster: $25; 377 pp.)

June 16, 1996|Oliver Stone | Oliver Stone is the co-writer, producer and director of the Academy Award-nominated films "JFK" and "Nixon."

The rivalry between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon personified the seminal tension that drove post-war American politics for some 30 years. As these two ambitious veterans of the Pacific War sought to define themselves on issues domestic and foreign, fitting themselves to their turbulent times, voters inevitably shaped their political consciousness in relation to them. Public perception of each was a mirror of the other. You either loved or hated them; neutrality was practically impossible. And while both had a genius for getting votes, the defining fact of the Kennedy-Nixon careers was that many more people loved JFK than hated him, while more hated Nixon than ever managed to love him.

Christopher Matthews, a syndicated political columnist, TV commentator and Washington Bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, has attempted to trace this vital rivalry in his book, "Kennedy & Nixon." Yet one would never know from this study that the author was describing the two most compelling political figures of recent times. A key theme is that the men were actually friends, but there is little or no documentation for this questionable assertion. Moreover, there are annoying factual errors, misquotes even of famous phrases and a complete absence of what has been called the "deep politics" of this pivotal period in American history. Matthews' book is history-at-face-value, a popular gloss intended for a public that lacks the sophistication to demand more detail, more insight, and more truth.

This last point is illustrated as early as the introduction, when Matthews blandly insinuates what may be the single most important conclusion of the book--a conclusion that is so wrong-headed, so completely unfounded, as to make the entire book suspect.

The subject is Nixon's instruction to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, on the June 23, 1972, White House tape, to use the CIA to shut off the FBl's probe of the Watergate burglary. Matthews asserts that Nixon's aim in committing this impeachable offense was to prevent the exposure of "what he believed to be Kennedy's secret bungling and betrayal of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion."

There is no reference to this specific motive anywhere in the June 23 conversation, and no serious student of Watergate has, to my knowledge, ever proposed this interpretation of the "smoking gun." The very idea that Nixon would risk removal from office in an effort, in effect, to conceal Kennedy's role in the Bay of Pigs is not only absurd on its face, it flatly contradicts the historical record contained in the Watergate transcripts as well as most of Matthews' own book.

In the closing chapters, Matthews tries to shade this bizarre view by suggesting that Nixon was attempting to attach to his own Watergate scandal the shield that had protected Kennedy from exposure for more than a decade. Here, oddly, Matthews comes close to a truth that he carefully avoids in his book: that as Nixon himself said, Watergate "tracked back" directly to the Bay of Pigs.

It is in this regard that "Kennedy & Nixon" passes from the realm of merely unremarkable popular history into that of active collusion in historical cover-up. For while admitting in passing that the CIA plots to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro began during the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, Matthews seeks to shift the responsibility for them entirely onto Kennedy. It was JFK and his brother, Robert, he says, who pushed for Castro's murder, ignoring Nixon's heavily-documented involvement in attempts to get rid of Castro.

Matthews quotes CIA Director Richard Bissell's assertion that it was "inconceivable" that Kennedy did not know of the plots. Given that the overthrow of Castro was to have been Nixon's October surprise in 1960, it is equally inconceivable that the murder plots, which commenced in the summer of '60, were unknown to the vice president who, according to such historians as Arthur Schlesinger and Michael Beschloss, presided over plans to remove the Cuba leader from power.

This curious revisionist effort to resurrect Nixon's bedeviled legacy at the expense of Kennedy's sainted one goes on. Matthews repeats the Nixon administration's own fraudulent accusation that Kennedy was behind the assassination of South Vietnam's president, Diem, while ignoring the fact that the plots against the Congolese president Lumumba and the Dominican Republic's Trujillo began on Nixon's watch. He catalogs Kennedy's connections with organized crime but does not mention what several historians have reported as Nixon's own long-standing ties with the mob, dating from Cuba in the 1950s and including Jimmy Hoffa and the very gangsters whom the CIA recruited to kill Castro.

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