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BOOK REVIEW / Nonfiction

Authentic Ring to Crowley's Second Memoir on Nixon

NIXON IN WINTER, by Monica Crowley (Random House; $30, 432 pages)

July 17, 1998|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Nixon "considered himself a man of thought and action," writes his admiring former foreign policy assistant Monica Crowley in "Nixon in Winter," "an uncommon statesman who combined the virtues of the ancient philosopher-kings."

Crowley, who assisted Nixon with foreign policy when she was fresh out of college, is plainly seeking to establish him once and for all as the major global thinker he asserted he was. Much of this book, the second and last volume of her memoirs of the time she spent with Nixon during the last four years of his life, is devoted to familiar Nixon discussions of U.S. policy toward China and Russia.

Crowley does not specify which philosopher-king she--or Nixon--had in mind. But, astonishingly, for a book this ambitious, Crowley records, time after time, sentiments from Nixon's mouth that contradict the virtues she says were his "gauges of success"--"wisdom and moderation, courage and dedication, spirituality and decency."

Here is Nixon, quoted by Crowley, on demonstrations against the Vietnam War: "We had hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets every day, paralyzing entire cities."

On the four students killed at Kent State by the National Guard: "Those kids were Communists, and the National Guard was defending itself. But it still wasn't right."

On American relations with China: "I am concerned that we are too condescending to the Chinese. Sending [American] professors [to China]? Please! Most of our professors are Marxist anyway. . . . There's a lot we could learn from [the Chinese]. We're no model society!"

These statements by Nixon are, of course, not true. Antiwar demonstrations did not paralyze entire cities. The young people killed at Kent State were not communists. Most American professors are not Marxists.

But these and similar outbursts that pepper Crowley's account have the authentic Nixon ring. It is a tone of defiant defensiveness, of a determination to get back, some day, at all those he thinks have persecuted him.

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It is a long list. It often includes his successors in the White House. He cannot conceal his bitterness about his resignation or his resentment of those who came after him. George Bush's men in particular are "those clowns running around the White House."

He is furious when Bush doesn't give him special treatment at the expense of the other living ex-presidents and is captivated when President Clinton pays attention to him. He flies into rages when he suspects his successors are not following his advice, which he offers freely in private memorandums and newspaper columns.

Nixon on several occasions repeats to Crowley some of his pet aversions: the United Nations, the Peace Corps, professional diplomats in the U.S. foreign service, those pesky leftist professors and, of course, the media.

On the U.N.: "Every parliament stinks, and the U.N. is the most uncontrollable, unfair parliament of them all." He doesn't say in this book why he despises the Peace Corps, but one can speculate that it's because it was founded by his loathed opponent, John F. Kennedy.

On the foreign service: "Our foreign service people are the pits. . . .There are exceptions, but most come from the elite schools and the social set and don't know a damn about foreign policy. They're all liberals, Democrats."

Nixon's angry suspicion of news organizations is well-documented in this book. One of its funniest manifestations comes when CBS broadcasts a downbeat assessment of Boris Yeltsin's future just as Nixon has been campaigning for more Western support for him. "Do you think they're doing it to embarrass me?" Nixon asks Crowley.

Is this account by Crowley to be believed? She did not record the talks but wrote notes immediately afterward. Nixon spoke, she says, "with the implicit understanding" that his "disclosures" would "eventually be recounted" so that "his message, vision and understanding would carry on long after he had passed from the scene."

With Nixon dead, there is no one to deny her claim. The Nixon she presents in "Nixon in Winter," from his preoccupation with geopolitics to his repeated expressions of insecurity and hostility, is the Nixon we long since have come to know. Crowley says she admires him in spite of his flaws. Her story can be taken at face value.

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