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NONFICTION

NIXON SPEAKS : NIXON OFF THE RECORD: His Candid Commentary on People and Politics. By Monica Crowley (Random House: $23, 231 pp.)

August 11, 1996|Robert Dallek | Robert Dallek is a presidential historian who has written books about Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan. He taught at UCLA for 30 years and his latest book, "Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents," will be published by Hyperion in September

Toward the end of his life, in his last public appearance before the House of Representatives, Richard Nixon remembered Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous farewell speech to Congress and declared that "old politicians sometimes die, but they never fade away."

Nixon had it right. Two-and-a-half years after his death, the most irrepressible American politician of this century is back, courtesy of Monica Crowley, described as a 26-year-old "foreign policy assistant" who worked for him from 1990 to 1994. A "member of his small circle of advisors" in whom he put full trust, Crowley worked with the former president on his last two books and listened attentively as he confided "his views on international affairs and world leaders, American politics and policy, Watergate, his own political career, and human nature."

Now, in "Nixon Off the Record," a book featuring "Nixon's views on American leadership and the political process," the author recounts his words "verbatim"--giving him yet another chance to put his "message and vision" before the country.

Nixon never knew she was keeping a daily diary of their conversations, or so Crowley claims. But how in the world did she compile so exact a record of his comments without his knowledge? Her book is full of lengthy quotes--long, sprawling paragraphs with intricate recall of people and places that could not possibly have been scribbled down or recorded after their conversations, at least not verbatim quotes.

Even if Crowley took "some notes" during the conversations, as she mentions in a New Yorker excerpt from the book (something she neglects to tell us in the book), it would be astounding if she had been able to reconstruct Nixon's words exactly from "some notes" and memory. It seems more likely that the author taped their conversations and that Nixon encouraged her to publish his words after he was gone. Are we in the presence, then, of Nixon's last tapes--and last cover-up?

No matter--there is no criminal trespass here. But if my supposition is correct, it forcefully reminds us of one side of Nixon--the devious manipulator of facts for self-serving purposes. Why would he try to hide his participation in this collaboration? He probably believed that a book by a bright young political novice would give his views more resonance than if they appeared as another expression of special pleading on his part.

Though Crowley strikes some worshipful chords about her mentor--she sees herself as reconstructing the president's "final journey toward personal and political resurrection"--she is no cipher. To be sure, she celebrates Nixon's shrewdness as a political analyst: "Campaigning and governing are, of course, two different things," he told her. "In campaigning, you play to win; in governing, you act to move the nation and, in some cases, the world. A great campaigner doesn't necessarily make a great leader; look at [President] Clinton. And a great leader can be a terrible campaigner. . . . Governing is so much more complex and difficult."

In a revealing passage, she gives us Nixon's take on George Bush's reelection dilemma:

"There were three sides to the Reagan revolution. . . . [First] the economic side, with voodoo economics. Cutting taxes would have been OK if he [Reagan] had also cut expenditures. He didn't and left Bush with one hell of a deficit. Second, he strengthened the military; Carter started it, but Reagan did it. And third--which won him the undying support of the far right--was to espouse those social policies against abortion, for school prayer, etc.

"So look at what Bush inherited. The economy is in the pits. The Cold War is over, so the military has lost much of its significance. And he [Bush] was left with the third leg--the weakest of all--the social issues, and he wasn't credible supporting it. He had to face the bad economy and blame Reagan. The 'read my lips, no new taxes' pledge was wrong economically, politically and personally because after that he couldn't be trusted."

Crowley also describes Nixon's prediction in February 1993 that Bob Dole would be the Republican nominee in 1996, and that he would be able to use the character issue effectively against Bill Clinton. As for Clinton, Nixon saw him as "good with people, which makes him a good politician, but not a good statesman." Nixon astutely observed that Clinton needed to take on an issue and lose, noting that "losing sometimes means a win."

The author leaves no doubt that Nixon's survival and comebacks during a 50-year political career largely resulted from the man's intellectual and intuitive feel for shifting national moods and fixed traditions. Yet her portrait is no hagiography. The brilliant tactician and thoughtful statesman is coupled with the hypersensitive egotist whose judgments on people and events were colored by enthusiasm for those who sought him out and resentment toward those who ignored him.

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