Nixons Rap Sheet

Anthony Summers on Americas Most Dangerous President

Photo by Hank Williams/TimepixPeople go through that psychological bit nowadays. They think they should always be re-evaluating themselves. That sort of juvenile self-analysis is something I've never done.

—Richard Nixon, 1966

His fragile masculine self-image always drew him to the strong and the tough—and the ultimate power of the presidency.

—Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, a psychotherapist Nixon consulted from 1951 to 1994

George W. Bush spends a lot of TV time saying he'll restore credibility to the White House —implying that Al Gore can't because he's connected to Bill Clinton, who, in turn, had his penis sucked in the Oval Office and then ridiculously lied about it. Bush continues to make the claim because Republican strategists think it'll work; they think you've forgotten that Republican Richard Milhous Nixon—not Clinton—was the most dishonest and dangerous man ever to serve as president of the United States.

Nixon was our Janus, the two-faced Roman god, shrouding nearly every aspect of his life in lies: his family, childhood, education, opponent voting records, campaign backers, income, war plans and, ultimately, own criminal culpability. His incredible ambitions drained him of any compunction about lying to his family, aides and allies, as well as, fatally, the American people who put him into office in the first place.

He lied about who funded his campaigns. He lied about his wife's birthday. He lied about what countries the U.S. was bombing. He lied about his income. He lied about getting arrested. "You're never going to make it in politics," Nixon once told Leonard Garment, his special counsel and former New York law partner. "You just don't know how to lie."

Nixon knew lies brought power. And especially when he was president, the lies came hard and fast, quickly swallowing those unfortunate enough to be close to him when the truth came out.

Take his secret Vietnam War-era bombing of neutral Cambodia. On Nixon's orders, many bomber pilots were tricked into thinking they were pounding South Vietnamese targets, when in fact their bombs were falling farther west. Those who knew better received orders to falsify their flight logs. Both actions—which turned junior officers 10,000 miles away into co-conspirators—were unprecedented in U.S. military history.

Nixon's problem, by the end of his presidency, was that his myriad lies came back to haunt him. In fact, a case can be made that he lied so much he lost touch with what was actually happening around him. He stumbled through the months leading up to his disgraced August 1974 resignation—sometimes drunk, sometimes merely clueless—as many of his aides wondered whether he was ever really sane after all.

My favorite Nixon story comes from June 1974. Nixon was in the midst of a Middle East tour; back home, Watergate investigators were circling, ready to finish him off. During a meeting with the Israeli cabinet, Nixon suddenly leaped to his feet, saying he knew the best way to deal with terrorists, and proceeded to gun down the cabinet with an imaginary machine gun, all the while making "brrrr" sounds.

This anecdote doesn't appear in Anthony Summers' new Nixon biography, The Arrogance of Power, but it doesn't need to. There's more than enough evidence in Summers' book to carpet-bomb Nixon's legacy until no aspect of his personal or political life is left standing—until it's finally impossible to erect any more monuments to the man.

The Nixon Library isn't pleased this book is out. During an Aug. 28 CNN interview, Nixon Library executive director John Taylor urged his television audience to "condemn this book and [its publisher] the Viking Press in the strongest terms."

Taylor says The Arrogance of Power is devoid of "fairness and dispassionate objectivity and good sourcing in history." But Taylor has no room to talk. As Nixon's most passionate defender, Taylor has taken to attacking the late president's critics in completely Nixonian ways.

In February 1999, for example, when the National Archives released a particularly nasty batch of Nixon's audiotapes dealing with Watergate conspiracies, Taylor simultaneously released his own transcripts. What he neglected to tell people, as The Washington Post later showed, was that his transcripts differed remarkably from Nixon's actual words, as heard on the tapes. In one exchange highlighted by the Post, Taylor changed a Nixon statement advocating a cover-up to one in which the good president was denouncing a cover-up.

Such rewriting of Nixon's past has grown more popular since his death in 1994. The most recent example is Chapman University professor Irwin Gellman's 1999 biography, The Contender. The first in a proposed three-part study of Nixon, Gellman's book attempts to show that Nixon, far from being the bad dude usually portrayed by journalists and historians, was actually a decent chap in the early years. Not only does Gellman's wife appear in the footnotes as one of his sources (surprise: she works at the Nixon Library), but Gellman also ignores so much documented Nixon history that his book would be laughable if it weren't so damn boring.

An earlier study often cited by Nixon fans for its "fairness" was the 1994 book Nixon: A Life, written by British M.P. Jonathan Aitken. Aitken focused primarily on funny little anecdotes concerning Nixon—then-congressman Jack Kennedy trying to get Nixon hooked up with Parisian prostitutes, for instance. Throughout, Aitken—currently serving 18 months in jail for perjury he committed while suing Granada TV and the Guardian newspaper—portrayed Nixon as a worldly statesman hounded from office on a technicality.

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