At a Gridiron dinner in Washington in the eighties, Bob Dole looked up at the dais and saw Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon sitting beside one another.
"Look," said Dole. "See No Evil.... Hear No Evil.... and EVIL."
Dole was kidding. Anthony Summers is not. Summers' new book ("Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon") is not so much biography as it is demonology, a sort of dark cartooning.
Summers offers the latest in history's long procession of New Nixons this one more villainous, more relentlessly strange, than any seen before.
Here we have:
1) Nixon the wife-beater, who, according to Summers' busy spinning of hearsay and rumor, hit Pat severely before, during, and after the White House years blackening her eyes, sending her to emergency rooms. Summers' account is a tabloid masterpiece put together with no real evidence, only second- and third-hand eyebrow-waggling and inference-projecting. You get the picture when you see that Summers gives a psychologist's profile of your typical wife-beater ("rigid, impersonal, and inadequate to deal with stress," "values that respect rigid sexual stereotypes") and concludes eureka! "It is fair to say that Nixon conformed to this profile to one degree or another." Summers shakes his fist at a dead man and demands, "Have you stopped beating your wife??!!"
2) Nixon the pill-gobbler, who during the White House years consumed Dilantin like M & M's. The drug, an anti-convulsant usually prescribed to forestall petit-mal epileptic seizures, was also supposed to be an anti-irritant and mood stabilizer. Summers says Nixon took it in order to relieve the stresses of his job and, well, of being such an odious thing as Richard Nixon.
Summers claims that the drug caused Nixon to slur his speech, to become confused, and to exhibit evidence of such instability that Defense Secretary James Schlesinger quietly passed the word at the Pentagon that any unusual mobilization orders from Nixon must be checked with Schlesinger first.
Those two sensational items are the ones that have made the papers in the last couple of days. Summers, a British hack of the Fleet Street school, makes his living buzzing around the carcasses of high American scandal. His "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover" had the head of the FBI dressing up in ballgowns. If you read Summers' Nixon book more carefully (I don't urge it), you find, among other things, that the author may be among the half dozen people on earth who believe that Alger Hiss may in fact have been innocent the victim of a Hooverian/Nixonian plot to fabricate that Woodstock typewriter. It would not surprise me to learn that Summers' next editorial project is an account of the love affair between Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles.
Summers' book is so unrelievedly hostile, so committed to satanizing the strange man from Whittier, that I find myself wanting to defend Nixon which is quite a novel impulse for me. Even Oliver Stone, who has a minor genius for mischievous dark cartooning (as in his contemptible movie "JFK," with its hallucinations of kitchen-sink conspiracy), treated Nixon as a complex and in some ways sympathetic figure. H.R. Haldeman had it about right when he compared Nixon to "a multifaceted quartz crystal. Some facets bright and shining, others dark and mysterious. And all of them constantly changing as the external light rays strike the crystal...some smooth and polished, others crude, rough, and sharp...."
David Gergen, who in one way or another has served every president from Nixon to Clinton, offers a shrewd, balanced look at Nixon in his new book, "Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership." Gergen describes Nixon's mysterious bright side/dark side personality a bully and political crook, much given to anti-Semitic rant, who at the same time was a visionary in foreign policy (China and all of that), far more progressive in domestic matters than anyone remembers, and, before self-destructing, "among the best of modern presidents."
That may not be saying much. If you consider what we know now about the presidents who served from January, 1961 to August, 1974 (John Kennedy's Addison's disease and Dr. Feelgood drugs and relentless risky sex; Lyndon Johnson's grandiosity and paranoia, and Richard Nixon's blackly coiled weirdness) why you have to wonder how the Republic survived at all.