It may be true, as Richard Reeves noted in his own recent Nixon book, that the press was far more fascinated by the 37th president of the United States than the American people ever were. It is undoubtedly true that Nixon's political downfall was in large part a press-driven affair, and the high water point for politically charged "investigative journalism."
But as the press baron Conrad Black argues in his doorstop of a book, "Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full" (Public Affairs, 1,152 pages, $40), Nixon was also for decades a reliable exemplar of the mass of Americans who would come to be called the "silent majority." In Black's view, "Nixon was the people. He was the representative inhabitant of what Jack Kerouac called 'the great unwashed body of America.' He was laborious but effective, eloquent but not hypnotizing, cynical but compassionate and patriotic. He got where he did by climbing, falling, climbing again, and never ceasing to struggle."
All this struggling would provide ample fodder for a gaggle of historians, novelists, economists, psychologists, journalists, and the odd mountebank who sought to explain, diagnose, defame, or even defend Richard Milhous Nixon. Publishers everywhere should have offered a special prayer of Thanksgiving last week for the life of this most controversial of all presidents. There were more than 100 volumes on offer recently at Amazon.com.
Inevitably, this raises a threshold question: Why 1,152 additional pages of fairly small type now? Admittedly, there is no easy answer to this — not even a handy anniversary or, better, an archival disclosure that renders another big Nixon book necessary. But for this reader, Black's imprecise timing is less relevant than his acumen and brio. "Richard M. Nixon" is a thoroughly readable and entertaining account of a famously complex character — a player who, like Woody Allen's "Zelig," kept turning up whenever history turned a page.
Black has had a professional life of great ups and downs, and based on his performance here and in an earlier biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he seems to have drawn lessons from his subjects' careers — so full of near-death experiences — to re-invent himself as a major popular historian. This is a book of considerable sweep, taking in the whole arc of American political and cultural life from the Great Depression through World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights struggle, Vietnam, the counterculture and its backlash, the pivotal opening to China, the Watergate scandal, and the long years of Nixonian transfiguration, from disgraced stick figure waving awkwardly from a helicopter to best-selling memoirist and elder statesman. It is also chock-full of astute judgments and insights, not only concerning Nixon, his circle, and policies, but the presidents and courtiers who preceded and followed the Nixon years. There is also a modest amount of score-settling; Henry Kissinger may not send Black a holiday card this year. But for the most part, his observations are fair and even generous. He is particularly gallant in his treatment of Nixon's wife, Pat, who emerges as a courageous and admirable woman — a far cry from the Stepford Wife caricature so cherished on the left.
Despite his conservative credentials, Black is far from an ideologue. In the pivotal McCarthy period, he is very hard — indeed, perhaps even too hard — on some of the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But he correctly evaluates some of the yahoos, boobs, and anti-Semites who briefly gave anti-communism a bad name. One would never know it from some of the other assessments of Nixon's role in these proceedings, but Black is careful to document his subject's background briefings to the New York Herald Tribune that eventually undermined and dispatched the worst cretins.
When Republicans try to smear Truman as soft on communism, Black admirably pounces:
These Republican orators conveniently overlooked the ineptitude of Chiang Kai-shek, as if local matters in the world's most populous country had nothing to do with the outcome of the civil war there. They also overlooked the facts that Truman had saved Greece, West Berlin, and Korea from the communists, founded the world's most ambitious alliance (NATO)… and had launched the greatest and most effective and imaginative foreign aid program in history (The Marshall Plan).…Truman had also dropped the atomic bomb and developed the hydrogen bomb, but the Republicans didn't much criticize him for that.
Some of the more interesting material in the book deals with Nixon's early interactions with civil rights leaders and his careful, but apparently sincere, advocacy on their behalf. Under his prodding, the Eisenhower administration passed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Although flawed because of amendments from southern Democrats, it had the backing of a young Martin Luther King. Nixon was also unusual in his day in choosing private schools for his children, at least in part because, unlike the public schools, they were integrated.
Thankfully, there is no effort to overlook the dark side of Nixon's persona. A case in point is the famously productive, albeit dysfunctional, relationship with Mr. Kissinger. Much of this is familiar stuff, but Black manages to provide some useful insights here as well:
Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were very considerable men, and they rendered great service. In some ways their natures were complementary … But in other ways they brought out each other's worst qualities, especially paranoia, amorality, an unquenchable desire for praise and recognition, and, in Kissinger's case, the obsequiousness of the courtier. It has become a truism of modern American history that they were almost symbiotic, despite their lack of personal rapport. It is idle conjecture, but Kissinger might have done better with a president of greater rectitude, like Truman or Eisenhower (as he did with Gerald Ford). And Nixon might have been better served by a talented but less devious adviser, such as Acheson, of all people.
This is by no means the last word on the 37th president, but it is a magnificent one-volume summing up of his efforts on the world stage and, as such, provides a clearer picture of Nixon and his times.
Mr. Willcox, a former editor in chief of Reader's Digest, lives in Ridgefield, Conn.