Monday, July 30, 2007

Robert Dallek's Nixon and Kissinger

I admit it, I am a bit of a Nixon junkie, which got going in the mid-1990s when a spate of Watergate books (as well as a really good documentary) came out. I just read Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger, which I first started reading idly and then really got into. If you’ve read a lot about Nixon, then you won’t find much new about him specifically, but the relationship between the two is morbidly fascinating, based on a wide range of documents and tapes as they talked and wrote to one another. So I’ve put it on the sidebar.

Several themes come out of the book. Each would:

--try to take more credit than the other for foreign policy successes. Both had insatiable appetites for approval, and never received as much as they felt they deserved. Both were also self-pitying. Kissinger threatened to resign about 100 times, and constantly needed Nixon to stroke his ego, while Nixon would call up Kissinger late at night and ask for confirmation that his foreign policies were the greatest in U.S. history. They distrusted but still needed each other.

--backstab like mad, even each other. As soon as Kissinger or Nixon left a meeting, each would talk to someone else about the other’s shortcomings. Nixon was always concerned that Kissinger would be seen as the driving force of foreign policy, so he undercut him whenever possible.

--blame the media and political opponents for any and all problems that arose. Both were incredibly thin-skinned and given to temper tantrums at negative news stories. Dallek gives multiple examples where Kissinger referred to people as “maniacs,” which seemed to be a favorite word of his.

--use foreign policy to distract the country from Watergate, and convince Congress that Nixon’s removal would threaten world peace (to the extent that such a thing existed). Obviously, it didn’t work, but they kept talking about it right until the end.

Dallek is a very good writer, which makes a fairly long book go quickly. My only complaint is that he injects his own opinion a little too much, mostly in terms of what Nixon or Kissinger could’ve done in a given situation. He generally does so to highlight how their public statements did not really reflect their actions, but it doesn’t seem very helpful to discuss things that didn’t happen, especially since the potential effects are so difficult to discern. For example, he says if Kissinger was really concerned about the effects of Watergate on foreign policy, he could’ve tried to persuade Nixon to invoke the 25th amendment and step aside while he dealt with the crisis. Such a decision, though, is far too complex to toss in there in a few sentences.


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