A vivid portrait of Nixon since Watergate; Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon, by Robert Sam Anson. New York: Simon & Schuster. 360 pp. $17.95.
years since he resigned in disgrace 10 years ago. Author Robert Sam Anson has enlivened his thoroughly researched account of the key (and commonly known) events in Richard Nixon's post-presidential years with many heretofore unpublished, insightful, and illuminating anecdotes.
The portrait of Nixon that emerges from these pages is vivid, though not complete. Anson has drawn upon a multiplicity of sources - the copious mounds of Watergate-related literature, Nixon's own published writings and public interviews, and the author's own interviews with many members of the supporting cast in this ongoing drama (though not with the chief protagonist himself) - to give what are actually third-hand descriptions that ''you were there'' feeling. Through numerous vignettes depicting the former President's words and deeds, Anson gives the reader many glimpses of the multifaceted character of his complex, enigmatic subject.
We see a ''tough guy'' with a macho complex and the now-familiar R-rated language (no expletives deleted in this book). We also see a man who is at times shy, insecure, and painfully awkward in certain social situations. Foremost among the Nixon qualities portrayed here is an indisputably powerful intellect with as comprehensive a world view as one is likely to find among contemporary American political leaders.
This world view includes a disdain for naive ivory-towered idealism and a concomitant unapologetic belief in what the former president calls ''realism'' - a sense that the world is a hard place in which one has to be willing to be as tough (or even brutal) as it takes to prevail. It is this ''pragmatism'' or ''ruthlessness'' (depending on your viewpoint) that comes closest to the heart of Watergate.
Unless a person is a confirmed Nixon-hater, some positive feelings for the man are bound to be engendered by this book. The harrowing account of the ex-President's near-death from phlebitis shortly after his resignation stirs compassion. A spark of sympathy is elicited by his pathetic predicament when, tongue-tied at the unexpected approach of a female admirer (a total stranger), he finally managed to offer, ''My, that's a wonderful outfit you're wearing. It's Oscar de la Renta, isn't it?'' - only to have to duplicate that desperate-but-valiant attempt to be gracious with another lady a few moments later. And how can one not feel some rapport, no matter how minimal, with a man who has the blunt honesty to call Idi Amin a ''blankety-blank cannibal blank'' (expletives deleted)?
Contradictions abound in Richard Nixon. He can expound at great length and with great facility on global issues of perplexing intricacy; and yet, as is seen in ''Exile,'' he can appear incapable of giving a simple toast (as was the case at a memorial dinner for Anwar Sadat) or be reduced to acute stammering when a question strikes too close to home. He claims that great leaders can't be concerned with what people think of them, yet he obviously considers himself a great leader and is deeply concerned about his public image. Most important for history's eventual assessment of his presidency, Anson points out that Nixon has continued to speak like a conservative during the last 10 years - even as his nemesis, the ''liberal establishment,'' begins to awake finally to the fact that his presidency was, in fact, a monument to liberalism.
Still adored by many conservatives, Mr. Nixon's record as President - detente , arms control agreements acceptable to the Soviets, recognition of the People's Republic of China, wage and price controls, an increase in welfare-state expenditures faster than Lyndon Johnson ever dared, and so on - now seems like ''the good ol' days'' to liberals vexed with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Even George McGovern has paid tribute to Nixon, writing, ''History will remember you as one of the great peacemakers of the twentieth century.''
The stark contrast between the rhetoric and the policies of Richard Nixon is one of the great mysteries about the man - a mystery that Anson does not solve. We never learn what Nixon really believes in, other than winning. Anson captures the essence of Nixon's ethics in a passage from the latter's book ''Leaders,'' in which he described Abraham Lincoln as a ''supreme idealist'' who nonetheless ''broke laws,'' violated the Constitution, ''usurped arbitrary power,'' and ''trampled individual rights'' in his quest to preserve the Union. ''His justification was necessary,'' wrote Nixon, and he generalized: ''Whatever the field, the crucial moral questions are, in effect, those of the bottom line'' - a Machiavellian code by which a Watergate burglary could be justified a hundred times over.
Although any historical account is inevitably colored by its author's perceptions, Anson's ''Exile'' seems remarkably objective. Anson has meticulously cited the sources - a judicious precaution since some quotations have been attributed to individuals on the not-altogether-reliable basis of a single personal recollection of a distant event.
Such stylistic embellishments, however, are limited to peripheral trivia, which add color to what is an essentially accurate journalistic chronicle. This book will naturally contain redundancies for those readers who have read many of the post-Watergate accounts, but that does not detract from its stature as the definitive overview of President Nixon's post-resignation decade.