Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972 by Stephen Ambrose

Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972 by Stephen Ambrose
Copyright 1989

The second installment of Ambrose's three volume history of Richard Nixon's life starts in the immediate aftermath of his "Last Press Conference". Nixon was bitter, angry with the press, angry at himself, and in a funk because he was no longer a player and, by his own behavior, had probably permanently marginalized himself. However, as he had done before and would do again and again in his career, once the bitterness passed, he plotted his comeback.

He first changed his political base -- relocating to New York. In New York, he could start anew in politics and he could make some lucrative money as a corporate attorney. On its face, this would seem foolish since Nelson Rockefeller dominated New York politics and especially New York Republicans who represented the Eastern Establishment wing of the GOP. Nixon knew what he was doing.

He needed money. As a former VP, he would have been a welcome addition to any law firm. It was in his legal practice, where his primary client was Pepsico, he met John Mitchell -- the man who would become his attorney general and would make many of the decisions that would ultimately lead to his downfall.

Nixon had no intention for contending with Rocky for control of New York politics. New York and its media served Nixon's ends of remaining a national figure. While working doggedly at his legal practice, Nixon also engaged in almost non-stop political commentary. He wrote for general circulation magazines such as Readers Digest and scholarly journals such as Foreign Affairs. He was a frequent television commentator.

Nixon was shrewd in how he pursued opposing politicians. He was remarkably soft on JFK. Some might conclude this stemmed from their strong friendship. However, it's more likely that he was smart enough not to attack the charismatic president during times of national crisis. When Lyndon Johnson became president and his popularity slowly eroded, Nixon stepped up his attacks on the president, taking him to task in any and all media.

Ambrose discusses, but does not plumb deeply, the relationship between JFK and Nixon. History needs to examine this closer because the ways and means of American events over a twenty year period could be more clearly studied were someone to delve into a study of these mismatched friends. You can see the heartfelt grief and sympathy in Nixon's note to Jackie shortly after JFK's death. Nixon felt a deep sense of loss when his greatest adversary and one of his few close friends, died.

Nixon was wise enough not to get caught up in the Republican debacle that was the 1964 election. He did do all within his power to limit the damage. As a party moderate, not loyal to the Goldwater conservatives or Rocky liberals, Nixon tried to broker a compromise between the two groups. He tried to convince Goldwater to not use the infamous, "Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice," remark. Nixon and his fellow moderates lost that battle and Rocky's delegates walked out of the convention. Johnson's 1964 landslide was set and Congressional Republicans would not even start on the road to recovery until 1980.

By 1968, Nixon knew the time was right. Johnson was exceedingly unpopular. Vietnam had fractured the Democrats. Republicans had no clear front runner for the presidency. George Rommey of Michigan was the front runner in the polls, but neither conservatives nor liberals could get excited about him. Republicans wanted Nixon, who had come so close to success in 1960. Nixon remained coy and kept his name in play but himself out of the early race. He let the "Draft Nixon" movement build.

The only issue of 1968 was Vietnam and Nixon knew that he had Hubert Humphrey bent over on the issue as Kennedy had him bent over the issue of Cuba in 1960. Humphrey could not criticize the conduct of the war because, as vice-president, he could not openly criticize the conduct of an administration he was part of. Nixon pounded him relentlessly. Only when Johnson announced a well-timed bombing halt did Humphrey close the gap on Nixon. Nixon would ultimately win a close 1968 election.

Nixon's executive office and cabinet was the most Machiavellian since Lincoln's and did not function nearly as well. At Chief of Staff, Nixon put H.R. "bob" Haldeman -- a no-nonsense man of surly disposition. His other close domestic aide was Domestic Counsel, John Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman practically defined the term Machiavellian and would be the engineer of "The Plumbers" who conducted several activities on behalf of the White House. John Dean would be added later.

His cabinet was not strong. His old friend, Bill Rogers was named Secretary of State primarily because Nixon knew he would not challenge him. Nixon planned to run foreign affairs on his own and use the National Security Council and Dr. Henry Kissinger as his tool. George Shultz at Treasury was also a weak pick who was overmatched by runaway inflation. His old friend, John Mitchell was installed at Attorney General and did an adequate, but not stellar job, at running the Justice Department. Nixon's thinking according to Ambrose, was a weak cabinet would make the leader look stronger.

Ambrose debunks the myth that Nixon declared he had a "Secret Plan" to get us out of Vietnam. Nixon never made such claim. He did have a plan that he called "Vietnamization". This was the slow draw down of American troops while increasing the numbers of South Vietnam regulars to fight the insurgent Vietcong. Nixon began almost immediately withdrawing troops. He coupled it with constant bombing of North Vietnamese targets as well as secret op's directed at Vietcong posts in Laos and Cambodia.

Nixon had little interest in domestic politics. He grasped the essentials of macro-economics, but did not like to discuss economic policy. Antithetical to every conservative bone in his body, he embraced wage and price controls -- recommended by future Reaganite Schultz. He also introduced the Family Assistance Plan -- again, against every conservative principle he held. The FAP amounted to a guaranteed minimum income for every American. FAP was a pure political ploy, as Ambrose points out. He knew liberals could not embrace it and cede the issue to the Republicans. Nixon was confident that Democrats would overplay their hand and he was right. FAP went down to defeat, just as Nixon hoped it would, while Nixon took credit for trying to help the poor and blamed Democrats for playing politics.

Of course, the centerpiece of the Nixon presidency was the opening of China. Ambrose delves deeply into the delicate give and take of how this opening was achieved. There were careful negotiations to have the U.S. ping pong team to visit with American media covering. All the while, Henry Kissinger negotiated the first dialogue between the governments of the U.S. and Red China. Kissinger's one word telegram to the White House -- "Eureka!" set the stage. In 1972, he would visit China, dine with Mao Zedong and Dong Xiapong, and set the stage for the 21st century economy. It was his greatest triumph.

Nixon had more on his mind than being friendly with the Chinese. He wanted to put the Soviets on the hot seat. Nixon employed the old maxim "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," and the Chinese and the Soviets were quickly becoming enemies. The opening of China set the stage for Detente' -- another of Nixon's great achievements. Ambrose points out that Nixon, more than any other president other than perhaps James Monroe, could see the whole globe strategically and manipulate it to his liking.

The book closes with the election of 1972 when the Democrats imploded around the candidacy of George McGovern. Nixon should have behaved as Reagan did in 1984 and been a gentleman to the man he knew he was going to crush. Instead, his paranoia of losing and his drive to create a massive "mandate" that would empower him to completely reshape government and the federal bureaucracy to his liking, planted the seeds of his downfall.

The machinations of Watergate are covered in Ambrose's third volume. What emerges from Ambrose's text in this volume is an appreciation of Nixon's intelligence, strength in the face of adversity, and his personal conduct. What is also evident is Ambrose's frequent disgust with Nixon's ruthless and cruel conduct in both politics and government. Nixon was a study in the duality of man and Ambrose covers both sides well.

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