It's been a good decade for American presidents with bad reputations. Ulysses S. Grant, John Tyler, and even the hapless Warren G. Harding have gone through a kind of historical rehab thanks to sympathetic biographers.
But the buck stops with Richard Nixon. In a searing new double biography, one of our most prominent presidential historians argues that Nixon was less than the brilliant foreign-policy mastermind of popular memory. Instead, he's depicted as often craven, isolated, and reckless, tied into knots by his rivalry with an obsequious and cynical Henry Kissinger.
Despite significant victories on the international stage, these partners demonstrated that "talent, knowledge and experience do not guarantee successful outcomes in foreign policy," writes Robert Dallek in Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, an encyclopedic and revealing inside look at the two men who essentially – if not always effectively – ran the world in the early 1970s.
In this whopping 752-page book, Dallek draws upon recently released audiotapes and transcripts of thousands of hours of White House conversations. As Dallek notes, the most secretive presidential administration of all, at least up to that point, is ironically the most "transparent" in history thanks to its fanatical record keeping.
Armed with the transcripts and tapes, Dallek provides new insight into the disasters and near-disasters of the Nixon administration on fronts ranging from the Soviet Union and Vietnam to the Middle East and South Asia.
As Dallek himself notes, much in his book is not new. His portrait of Nixon as ogre – paranoid, bitter, obsessed with his own reputation and reelection – is hardly groundbreaking. Neither is the portrayal of Kissinger, his national security adviser and later secretary of State, as egomaniacal sycophant.
But the details still hold the power to shock, from Nixon's profane diatribes and emotional breakdowns to his undermining of Vietnam peace talks immediately before the 1968 presidential election in order to scuttle his opponent's chances.
Even during the breakthrough in relations with China, perhaps Nixon's most lasting legacy outside Watergate, the president and his minions can't rise above "political image-making and petty bickering."
Dallek is especially vivid when he succinctly describes the Nixon Administration's interference with events in Chile. Obsessed with Communist inroads even in the seeming backwater of South America, the White House helps bring about a right-wing coup that spells disaster for the country in the form of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Kissinger scorns the "political mythology" of the administration's supposed role in the downfall of Chile's democratically elected leftist government. But Dallek finds evidence of a "concerted effort" to bring down the country's president that was both secretive ("our hand doesn't show on this one") and, ultimately, effective.
Why favor anticommunism over support of human rights? Dallek traces the seeds of Kissinger's motivations to the 1950s, when someone asked him which was worse, a revolutionary nation serving a just cause or a stable nation serving unjust goals. He replied that he would always choose "injustice and order."
"It was an article of faith," Dallek writes, "that would lead him into a number of questionable ... actions."
Dallek's voluminous book is sometimes bogged down by research, and he strangely fails to draw much from his own conversations with surviving players, Kissinger included. Still, the decades-old transcripts speak for themselves, revealing contrary tendencies toward both peace and war, all tinged with shades of political manipulation. At one point, Kissinger advises Nixon to postpone a pullout from Vietnam in 1972 "so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election."
As Dallek points out, "he had nothing to say about the American lives that would be lost in the service of Nixon's reelection."
Dallek provides plenty of other evidence to suggest that his two subjects fell victim to cynicism and their own flawed personalities, losing the chance to make better decisions. Both make "bargains with the devil," he writes: Nixon lies to everyone, from Congress to the public and the press, while Kissinger relentlessly refuses to confront his boss and insist on truth-telling.
Dallek explains their deception this way: "It was partly the product of arrogance – they believed they knew better than anyone else what best served the nation – and partly an aversion to criticism that any open debate was sure to bring."
The verdict of history – only one of their many obsessions – may be anything but kind to these most remarkable, powerful, and vainglorious men.
• Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.