The President as Potentate

President Nixon: Alone in the White House
By Richard Reeves. Simon and Schuster, 672 pages, $28.00

No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam By Larry Berman. Free Press, 334 pages, $27.50

Liberals may wish it weren't so, but the last president not to give a let's-rein-in-big-government State of the Union address was Richard Nixon. Bill Clinton's most memorable line from a State of the Union was "the era of big government is over," and Jimmy Carter's was his charge that "the government has almost become like a foreign country, so strange and distant." All the other presidents since Nixon--Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and the two George Bushes--have been conservative Republicans who slam big government for sport.

Nixon's 1971 address to Congress (and a prime-time national television audience) was different. He used it to outline the "great goals" of his "New American Revolution," which included welfare reform, "full prosperity in peacetime," restoring and enhancing the natural environment, and "improving health care and making it available more fairly to more people." By welfare reform, Nixon meant a modest guaranteed income for the poor, not shooing people off the rolls. By improved health care, he meant something like universal medical coverage.

Nixon lent his support to other liberal measures, too; Stewart Alsop began calling him "President Liberal" in his Newsweek column. Nixon approved the Philadelphia Plan, a quotas-based approach to increasing the number of blacks working on federally assisted construction projects. He explicitly embraced Keynesian economics and proposed "full employment" budgets--that is, budgets that would intentionally run deficits until the workforce was fully employed. In August 1971, Nixon imposed wage-and-price controls on virtually every product, service, and occupation in the American economy. He urged Congress to pass clean-air and clean-water legislation and created the Environmental Protection Agency. He signed the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act and the 1972 bill that not only raised Social Security benefits by 20 percent but also indexed them to annual changes in the cost of living.

Richard Nixon, liberal icon? Hardly. As Richard Reeves shows in President Nixon: Alone in the White House, Nixon cared about two things and two things only: getting re-elected and foreign policy. Domestic policy was uninteresting to Nixon; he privately dismissed it as "building outhouses in Peoria." To the extent that he paid attention to the home front, he did so either to strengthen his hand in foreign policy or to help secure his re-election.

Nixon's foreign-policy preoccupations sometimes took him to the left on domestic matters, sometimes to the right. His main goal, Reeves argues, was to convince the Chinese, the Soviets, and the North Vietnamese that domestic disorder had not weakened the resolve, military or diplomatic, of the United States. One way of accomplishing that goal was to numb the roots of urban race riots and student protests; hence the proposal (dubbed the Family Assistance Plan) for a guaranteed income and the creation of a draft lottery and, later, of an all-volunteer army. Another way was to crack down on leaks that revealed the extent of disagreement within his administration. Perversely, however, it was the leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers--which made John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (but not Nixon) look bad--that provoked Nixon to create the White House "plumbers unit," whose venal bungling helped bring down his presidency.

Reeves shows that when it came to Nixon's second concern--getting re-elected--the president was enormously impressed by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg's 1970 book The Real Majority. Scammon and Wattenberg argued that the Republican and Democratic Parties were evenly matched because the Democrats owned the "Economic Issue" (actually a congeries of issues such as Social Security, the environment, and jobs) and the Republicans held title to the "Social Issue" (crime, drugs, and morality). Whichever party could neutralize the other party's attempts to play to its strength would predominate.

The lesson Nixon learned from Scammon and Wattenberg was to run left on economics, especially since the Democrats showed signs of running right on social issues. (The typical Democratic campaign commercial in the 1970 midterm election featured a candidate riding shotgun in a police car.) Nixon's real purpose in supporting popular liberal legislation was to keep the Democrats who dominated Congress from getting all the credit for enacting it. Sometimes, as with the Philadelphia Plan, he saw the added benefit of aggravating the political fault lines within the Democratic Party, in this case by pitting liberals and civil-rights groups against the nearly all-white construction unions.

Why Nixon devoted his career to electoral politics is a mystery that Reeves plumbs but does not pretend to solve. Reeves has been around a lot of politicians in his long and accomplished journalistic career and, as he points out, most of them "are men who can't stand to be alone. Nixon did not like to be with people." At times, Nixon's misanthropy was almost comic, as when he ordered that White House Christmas parties be scheduled for when he was out of town so that he wouldn't have to attend; or when he told his chief of staff to deflect an adoring group of fellow Whittier College alumni into "an Evening at the White House or a church service. . . . This would be much better than a reception for them alone where I would have to get into too much conversation."

But usually Nixon's dislike of people was, well, vile. On the strength of Nixon's own words, Reeves reveals the president's hatred for groups as various as Jews ("they are out to kill us"), civil servants ("they're bastards and they're out to screw us"), and Senate Republicans ("a bunch of jackasses. . . . Fuck the Senate!")--to cite just a few. Shortly after winning 60 percent of the popular vote against Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 election, Nixon told an interviewer that "the average American is just like the child in the family"--that is, "soft" and "spoiled." Within the White House, he decided early in his presidency that "I must build a wall around myself." By July 1969, Reeves shows, three close aides--H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Henry Kissinger--constituted "Nixon's environment." He was constantly writing memos complaining about all the people who wanted to see him, especially his cabinet.

Psychology no doubt takes us partway toward explaining what Nixon was doing in politics. Reeves cites approvingly The Presidential Character, the 1972 book by political scientist James David Barber, who chronicled Nixon's subconscious need to compensate for low self-esteem by dominating others and predicted that he would bring down his own presidency through politically self-destructive behavior as soon as his hold on power was threatened. More tantalizingly, Reeves quotes from a number of to-do and, more important, to-be lists that Nixon wrote on yellow legal pads in the solitude of his hideaway in the Executive Office Building. These reveal aspirations for nobility of character so different from the reality of who Nixon was as to be poignant. One typical list included these items:

Each day a chance to do something memorable for someone.

Need to be good to do good.

Need for joy, serenity, confidence, inspirational.

Goals: Set example, inspire, instill pride.

Much as Nixon despised politics, he seems to have regarded it as the arena in which he could become something better than he knew himself to be.

But enough psychology. Surely the main reason Nixon sought the presidency so desperately is that he knew politics was the price he'd have to pay to get his hands on the reins of foreign-policy making. Reeves reminds us that Nixon devoutly admired Woodrow Wilson (another noble-minded but psychologically flawed individual, according to Barber and several Wilson biographers) and cared deeply about securing Wilson's great goal of a peaceful world led by the United States. Nixon also enjoyed foreign policy because, in dealing confidentially with other national leaders, he could sidestep Congress, the news media, interest groups, the bureaucracy--even his own secretary of state and secretary of defense--and get away with it.

Nixon especially liked dealing with the leaders of the major communist powers, China and the Soviet Union. In those countries, only a few people made all the decisions and they could keep secrets--Nixon's idea of Utopia. He was never happier than when secretly orchestrating the events that led to his February 1972 trip to China. Reeves quotes Kissinger aide Winston Lord as saying that Nixon "deliberately mirrored adversaries which were secretive. In China, only two or three people were involved in decision making." When Nixon met Mao, he was tickled by the chairman's comment "I like rightists." ("Those on the right can do what those on the left talk about," Nixon replied, neglecting to explain that whenever those on the left tried to do things like open a door to China, those on the right accused them of being comsymps.) And Nixon was so taken by Chou En-lai that, overlooking Chou's bloody career as a communist despot, he urged Kissinger to spin American reporters that "RN has similar character characteristics and background as Chou." He even gave Kissinger a list of nine Nixon-Chou talking points. Number 9 was as typical as it was preposterous: "Steely but . . . subtle and appears almost gentle."

Reeves concedes Nixon a certain measure of strategic brilliance: "His great intellectual strength was connecting the dots, seeing the world whole and from different angles." The China opening, for example, was aimed mostly at the Soviet Union; the idea was that fear of being outflanked by a U.S.-China alliance would spur the Soviets to accede to American goals on nuclear-arms control and other matters. Nixon was right about that. Three months after his trip to China, he traveled to Moscow to collect the Soviets' signature on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which placed history's first ceiling on nuclear deployment. When Nixon pressed Congress to approve a missile defense system, he had no doubt what its real purpose was: to give the United States a bargaining chip that he could negotiate away in return for concessions on Soviet nuclear submarines. Nixon was also shrewd enough to know that the Soviets would be inclined to embrace anything that enabled them to divert money from weapons development into their feeble civilian economy.

In view of Nixon's keen insights into China and the Soviet Union's strategic and economic incentives to cooperate with the United States, it's hard to understand his conviction that unless he continued to prop up the South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu, the entire structure of world peace that he was orchestrating would collapse. Yet, as political scientist Larry Berman shows in No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam, it was Nixon's blind spot concerning Vietnam that led him astray, at enormous cost to both the United States and, especially, its sad ally.

Nixon's sharp focus on the communist superpowers clouded his perception of the essentially local realities of the Vietnam War. Surely, Nixon reasoned, North Vietnam was as much a pawn of the Soviets and Chinese as South Vietnam was of the United States, so pressure from the communist superpowers would force their client to negotiate a withdrawal from the south. But, as Berman points out, the dominant historical memory of North Vietnam's leaders was of the Geneva peace conference of 1954, where they had given up land they had won from the French on the battlefield in response to diplomatic pressure from the Soviet Union and China. Ho Chi Minh and all of his ruling colleagues were from North Vietnam's own "greatest generation"; they had no intention of making the same mistake again. Indeed, Nixon's trip to China actually reduced Chinese influence over North Vietnam because it suggested that China now cared mostly about its relationship with the United States.

A lesson Nixon learned from his dealings with the leaders of the Soviet Union and China--namely, that they enjoyed negotiating different terms in secret than they were proclaiming in public--led him further astray in dealing with North Vietnam. Time and again, Berman shows, Kissinger would go into a secret meeting with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho with a let's-deal attitude and find that Tho's private negotiating position was the same as his public one. In session after session, Tho would merrily (and perceptively) invoke the most recent evidence of congressional and public opposition to the war, take note of the latest reduction in the number of American troops that Nixon's policy of "Vietnamization" had left in the south, and then place the same old demand on the table: The United States must withdraw if it hoped to see its prisoners of war.

Nixon and Kissinger's response was to accuse the North Vietnamese of bad faith, launch occasional and massive bombing campaigns, and state their renewed resolve to settle for nothing less than "peace with honor." This preoccupation with honor was their mistake all along, like a boy fighting on the playground over nothing because he thinks he has to do it to impress the girls. In truth, the girls think he's stupid, just as the Soviets and Chinese thought Nixon's persistence in a losing war that he'd inherited from his predecessors was stupid. As for the North Vietnamese reaction to Nixon and Kissinger's bluster at the negotiating table, Berman unmasks it as so much hemming and hawing for all the effect it had. At the end of the day, over Thieu's strenuous but futile objections (the "betrayal" in Berman's subtitle is of Thieu), Nixon agreed in January 1973 to a cease-fire in place: that is, a cease-fire that allowed North Vietnam to keep its 150,000 soldiers in South Vietnam when the United States withdrew. The terms were essentially the same--and in several cases, word-for-word the same--as those offered to the United States in 1969. They assured that South Vietnam would fall to the communists. Not surprisingly, on the night the peace agreement was announced, there was rejoicing in the streets of Hanoi, silence in the streets of Saigon.

Clearly, the bar is high for any author who seeks to add to the already crowded shelves of books on Nixon and Vietnam. Both Reeves and Berman have cleared that bar easily by approaching their overlapping subjects in distinctively illuminating ways.

Berman, the author of two books about U.S. policy during the earlier stages of the war (Planning a Tragedy and Lyndon Johnson's War), is renowned among Vietnam scholars for his documents-based research, and in No Peace, No Honor he has uncovered much new documentary evidence. Although Nixon and Kissinger labored mightily and for the most part successfully to keep scholars out of their papers, Berman has ingeniously drawn on sources as varied as the notes Kissinger's assistants took at the peace talks and the transcripts of both the public and the secret negotiating sessions kept by the Vietnamese. Berman's only flaws are occasional lapses into breathless "now the real story can be told" prose and a tendency to see everything through the lenses of his subject. (Worst example: "There very likely would have been no Watergate if not for Vietnam.")

Reeves's book has its own, equally minor defects. Inexplicably (unless he just ran out of gas), Reeves wraps up his story on April 30, 1973, with more than 15 months--nearly a quarter--of Nixon's presidency left to go. Is there a second volume in the works? One hopes so, but Reeves gives no indication that there is.

What makes President Nixon: Alone in the White House so good is that Reeves has once again executed with great skill the approach that he first used in his 1993 book President Kennedy: Profile of Power. Reeves took as his purpose "to reconstruct the Nixon presidency as it looked from the center" by uncovering "what he knew and when he knew it, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute." As in the Kennedy book, Reeves "hoped to get close to knowing what it was like to be president."

One thing Reeves learned by following calendar and the clock so closely is that noble and venal deeds not only can spring from the same person but often can do so at the same time. On May 28, 1972, for example, the very day that Nixon was negotiating the nuclear stand-down in Moscow, his henchmen were planting bugs in the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee.

Another important insight Reeves derived from his relentlessly chronological approach to Kennedy and Nixon is that neither man changed very much during the course of his presidency. "The office makes the man" is a familiar and comforting nostrum, supported for years by the claims of Kennedy biographers that their adored hero grew tremendously during his thousand days as president. Not so, argues Reeves. Kennedy left the presidency as he entered it: a cool, dispassionate leader who "did not know what he was doing at the beginning, and in some ways never changed at all," a man who "substituted intelligence for ideas or idealism, questions for answers."

A reassuring corollary to this insight is that neither does the office destroy the person, as some presidential scholars fretted in the aftermath of the Johnson and Nixon presidencies. They looked at Johnson, the most effective Senate leader ever, and at Nixon, the most resilient politician in history, and wondered: What did the office do to these men that their presidencies should end in political catastrophe? President Nixon, Reeves shows, was just Richard Nixon with a title--a man alone, riddled with noble aspirations and deep insecurities, and, like Kennedy, preoccupied with power in ways that made him neither consistently liberal, consistently conservative, nor consistently anything else.