We still have him to kick around, after all

Nixon's efforts to control the press gave birth to modern media skepticism

Two years after Richard Nixon became the 37th president of the United States, rumors began circulating that he planned to cancel the 1972 election. Regional newspapers such as The Oregonian, in Portland, reported that the RAND Corp. had been commissioned by the Oval Office to determine whether "rebellious factions using force or bomb threats would make it unsafe to hold an election." Soon people were hearing denials from Attorney General John Mitchell and Vice President Spiro Agnew.

The fact that those two were telling the truth and that the 1972 election happened doesn't detract from the significance of the story, according to historian David Greenberg. "While itself fictional," he writes, "the canceled-election rumor sprang from an accurate sense that Nixon was willing to push democracy's limits. The rumor had a literary, if not literal, integrity."

In "Nixon's Shadow," Greenberg traces meaning from such incidents as deftly as an astronomer charts the cosmos from the apparent movement of the stars and planets. Exhaustively researched and fluently written, this book, his first, is an important contribution to the study of Richard Nixon, and provides a penetrating analysis of how the president's legacy has altered American politics irrevocably.

"I believe that history consists not only in what important people did and said," Greenberg asserts, "but equally in what they symbolized - what they meant - to their publics." In the case of Nixon, a career politician with more comebacks, in more guises, than Talleyrand, such perspectives are to be found without end, and Greenberg selects eight that together richly represent the most unpopular president of our generation.

From the California conservatives who first sent Nixon to Washington as a congressman in 1947, to the self-styled radicals who spent the late '60s placing him in worldwide conspiracies beyond his wildest dreams, from the psychobiographers who plead insanity on his behalf as Watergate threatened to crack the nation, to the postmortem historians who have found a closet liberal in the former McCarthy henchman, the people whose opinions constitute this book demonstrate Nixon's contradictions and dramatize his complexity.

None of Nixon's relationships was as consistently contentious as his rivalry with the Washington press corps, and that dynamic captures the degree to which Greenberg's approach can be revelatory. Prior to Watergate, Nixon's coverage in the media was more positive than average, and at times could top even the most purple campaign hyperbole: In 1947, the new congressman from California was called "as typically American as Thanksgiving" by the Washington Herald Times, while the Los Angeles Examiner dubbed him "the tall, dark and - yes - handsome freshman." What, then, turned things so ugly?

"He took everything critical as a personal blast against him," former Nixon speechwriter William Safire has said, and certainly that explains why the feud was so bloody. But what matters more is that Nixon and the press were at odds fundamentally in their understanding of each other. Journalists held themselves directly and exclusively responsible to the American people. Nixon, on the contrary, considered the media a piece of machinery built to connect him with his constituency. Like any contraption, it might need some manipulation, but nothing that couldn't be fixed by professionals such as former advertising man H.R. Haldeman.

Trying as such differences between president and press would have been in ordinary circumstances, they became completely irreconcilable during Watergate, killing any chance of political survival.

To this day, Watergate remains the somber standard against which we measure other scandal-gates, and Nixon's fate still serves as an effective warning to officials inclined to abuse their power. It's no longer so much a shadow as, Greenberg writes, "a bright beacon for the discriminating."

The Nixonian penumbra that darkens our own era is an artifact of the calm before that political storm: his image as an opportunistic "news manager" who pioneered the use of stage sets and even a "full-time PR director." "From that moment on," ABC correspondent Ted Koppel recalls, "we had emerged from the Garden of Eden. We were never able to see candidates or campaigns the same way again."

Their reporting reflected it. In books such as Joe McGinniss's "The Selling of the President, 1968," as well as newspaper reporting, the press went behind the scenes and stayed there, convincing us that, to quote McGinniss playfully misquoting Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is the massage, and the masseur gets the votes."

"Politics has come to be seen as an illusion," Greenberg argues, reflecting on Nixon's legacy, "a superficial contest of images, that, like the pseudo-event, has no intrinsic meaning." By the time those canceled-election rumors stopped circulating, they were already half passé, cynicism from a naive age. Soon, we confronted the paralyzing sense that, after all, nothing in politics matters. Ron Rosenbaum perceived it as early as Nov. 5, 1970, when he wrote in The Village Voice of "a more demoralizing rumor than the RAND report: The '72 elections will be held and ... the candidates will be Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace."

Jonathon Keats is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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