Talking Head: '74

The Excerpts Which ran last week in The Boston Globe, among other places.

I REMEMBER those hot summer nights of six or seven years ago, lying on the floor of my family room, staring up at the near-mythic figure of Richard Nixon on the television screen. I remember cursing the image, and throwing pillows, coke cans, whatever was handy at it. I recall being filled with wonder at the man who could seemingly do anything and justify it to himself and then have the nerve to try to justify it to me. Who can forget the perspiring Nixon fumblingly pointing to the map of Indochina, identifying the Parrot's Beak for the Silent Majority to ponder and nod their heads and say yes, yes, Mr. President, cut the tumor out and save our boys? Who can forget the careful arrangement of the set--a flag in one corner and a bust of Lincoln, flanking the original talking head himself?

The essence of Nixon existed those days on television, the medium that after first failure he learned to manipulate so well. He used it in a way no president has matched, "taking his case to the American people" with an earnest, dogged persistence and Jack Webb-like reliance on purported facts that Jimmy Carter can only suggest. Whether it was an economic program, a war policy, or a foreign affairs development that led the news, Nixon could be counted on to hit the living rooms of Peoria himself, thus skirting the biased, liberal, effete snobs of the eastern Establishment press. And it was a time of news, of rapid change and struggles, at a pace and complexity it is hard to remember--with Nixon riding the waves, often making them, always offering his version of history as he went along.

Perhaps that is why the excerpts of Nixon's memoirs are so thoroughly and predictably disappointing. In a dull, clipped prose more reminiscent of Jerry Ford speaking off-the-cuff than his own roiling Pat Buchanan-William Safire speeches or football-fuck-em vernacular, nothing of the real Nixon emerges. The weird intensity, the paranoid desperation of the man who believed he always knew the right answer, and alone could act upon it, is gone. Instead, we are given a shallow, simplistic portrait of events, with the personality of the Great Vindictor sucked clean out of them. By contrast, the David Frost television interviews were volatile--if such a word is not ludicrous to use in describing them--and gave a far more penetrating look into the Nixon mentality.

FOR EXAMPLE, there is nothing revealing in the excerpt about Watergate. It is just a lame construction of already published events in such a way as to absolve Nixon of sinister motives and serious criminal intent. He explains his involvement as passive and oddly disinterested, claiming to have known nothing of the planning and little of the extent of the coverup. He quotes his diary to show he was relaxing on Bob Abplanalp's island on a date by which both Bob Haldeman and Charles Colson have testified they had notified him of events. The tone is set for a revision of contemporary history. He admits being aware of the use of the CIA to halt the FBI inquiry, but makes it seem all his subordinates' doing, with the president as a bunker-isolated entity to be told of the progress of campaigns off somewhere on distant Eastern Fronts. This may have been true, though the tapes dispute it. No rationale for such a complete alienation of the Compleat Politician from his own campaign is given, nor is it admitted. Of the 18-1/2 minute gap, Nixon can only limply state, "I do not know"; "I did not do it." As the tapes come to light in his version of the story, Nixon makes it appear that he is as surprised as anyone at their contents. He does not defend his constitutional battle to save them from scrutiny, a major legal question, with much passion. Nor does he depict his progress towards impeachment with anything much beyond a description of eroding congressional support, as if it were a doomed legislative proposal and not an investigation of gross misconduct. He occasionally states calmly, as if it were natural, that he became convinced at various times that various people were "out to get him." That is all. There is something Speer-like in this blank recitation of his role by the major participant in a crisis that at once paralyzed and galvanized a nation.

It is almost as if Nixon were trying to "normalize" the days of his presidency, make them more plausible, ordinary. The famous on-your-knees-Henry episode of prayer in The Final Days is thus described as a calm last instance of a regular personal ritual with religious and family significance. It may have been. Kissinger's reaction is not recorded.

In another excerpt, Nixon trivializes his trip to China by revealing--as you always suspected--that great heads of state meeting at the summit sound more like Floyd the barber and Andy Griffith than men of destiny deciding the course of the world. Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and Chou discuss Mao's health; Mao claims he likes rightists and makes other jokes; all agree that talking is a good thing; Chou looks at his watch. Nixon reveals that Chou was capable of sitting through long meetings in Chinese without falling asleep. These glimpses of power are fascinating, but present a pattern of disturbingly banal observations.

But it is in his description of the Vietnam conflict that the reader is most cheated. Not because Nixon misses any details, or fails to deem it important and emotional. Nixon even provides an anecdote on Kent State that succeeds in making even the great villain of those days somewhat human, stating his sympathy for the parents and students who died "protesting a decision they felt was wrong."

It is just that Nixon's methodical presentation of diplomatic cables, congressional battles and Vietnamese invasions is so utterly vacant of the gut feel of that era. For those who cut their political teeth on venomous demonstrations against the war and Nixon as its perpetuator, there will be little satisfaction in the excerpts' Ziegleresque newspeak. Nixon does not say he was wrong. Neither does he launch into a wild defensive screed of self-justification. Again, he seems to be trying to make everything he did seem ordinary, and even to make the context of his decisions similarly mundane. The mobilization of America's youth against his policies is presented like a police blotter--"In the academic year 1969-70 there were 1800 demonstrations, 7500 arrests, 462 injuries--two-thirds of them to police--and 247 arsons and eight deaths." Numbers do not recall well, for me at least, the spirit of those years. Nor does Nixon's awareness of the tragedy being played out around and through him lessen the suspicion that he was its progenitor.

One supposes that these excerpts could have been a lot worse, that Nixon could have distorted the facts, slandered his opponents, exalted his role. Maybe it is beneficial that he is so deliberately terse, giving us what he concludes are "just the facts, ma'am." He seems to believe that in time the import of the major accomplishments and crises of his presidency will become fully realized, and the personal feelings he aroused and felt will dwindle. If he is right, his book will be a basic text. But it will not help the historian conjure up the era.

THE HISTORIAN of the 21st century will have to go to his nearest Video Library and pull out the spliced-together copies of the Huntley-Brinkley report, of the CBS Evening News. He will need to watch the ARVN soldiers dangling from beneath helicopters on the retreat from Laos the way we did, watch G.I. s smoking dope in the barrels of M-16 s. He'll need to see the expressions on the children's faces as the cops in riot gear bash their friends. And to understand Richard Nixon, he'll have to study that damned upper lip and hear him say, "We could pull out--but that would be the easy way." Good night, Dick.