Assassination of a President; A New TV Series Demonises Richard Nixon as a Drug-Addicted Wife Beater. Here a Man Who Knew Him Well Argues He Was in Fact a Very Great Man .

Daily Mail (London), September 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Assassination of a President; A New TV Series Demonises Richard Nixon as a Drug-Addicted Wife Beater. Here a Man Who Knew Him Well Argues He Was in Fact a Very Great Man .


HISTORY'S judgment is never final, so the chattering classes of politics will probably still be arguing until kingdom come about whether Nixon was a great statesman or a great villain.

There is plenty of evidence around for a debate on both propositions. What is undeniable is that no 20th-century U.S. president polarises the opinions of historians, titillates the conspiracy theories of journalists or fascinates the curiosity of the reading public as Richard Nixon still does.

When Nixon left the White House in disgrace because of Watergate in 1974, the chorus of condemnation that followed his resignation left him so vilified that he was almost in the Hitler league of hate figures.

Yet, by the time he died nearly two decades later, Nixon's reputation had undergone a sea change.

Without in any way excusing the lies and the betrayal of trust that so stained his record over Watergate, there was nevertheless a general and growing consensus among Washington's leading commentators that Nixon, for all his flaws, should also be recognised as one of America's most remarkable foreign policy presidents and peacemakers.

Now an attack comes from a two-part BBC television documentary based on a new biography of Richard Nixon by Irish journalist Anthony Summers.

The detail of the book's sensational anti-Nixon charges I examine later, but it brings to mind the line: 'Every great man has his disciples, but it's often Judas who writes the biography.' These big swings of the pendulum of reputation are not unusual among major historical figures. Nixon himself relished the argument he knew would rage long after his death.

Speaking at the Oxford Union in 1978, when still something of a pariah, he disarmed a hostile questioner by saying: 'I screwed up over Watergate and I paid the price. Mea culpa. But let's get on to my achievements. You'll be here in the year 2000 and we'll see how I'm regarded then.' I was present in that Oxford audience which gave Nixon a standing ovation 22 years ago.

Inspired by that and other speeches I heard him make, I later devoted five years of my life and more than 100 hours of one-on-one interviews with Nixon to writing his biography.

BY THE END of my 633-page literary journey, I felt I knew the 37th President almost as well as anyone outside his own family.

However, I also knew how little I knew him. We had a revealing conversation on this issue shortly before my book was published.

Nixon asked me whether I thought it would be a success. I replied: 'I hope I have written a full and fair biography, but whatever the world says, you and I will know that it has failed.' 'Failed!' exclaimed a visibly discomfited Nixon, eyeing me as though I was a combination of his betes noires, Bob Wood-ward and Carl Bernstein (the Washington Post reporters who brought Nixon down). 'What do you mean, failed?' 'I mean I have come to the conclusion that you are far too complicated a character to be captured by the pen of a mere mortal writer,' I answered. 'Aha,' chuckled Nixon 'Now I know you're really getting somewhere.' This anecdote, highlighting the elusive, enigmatic complexity of Richard Nixon, is relevant to the new full-frontal attack in the Summers biography.

Sadly, the book's pages are singularly deficient in two important qualities essential for anyone trying to portray the multifaceted life of Richard Nixon subtlety and humility. Anthony Summers, alas, has neither.

It is worth remembering the story of Nixon's rise to power, which is the nearest example in 20th-century America of the 'log cabin to White House' legend.

Born in 1913 to working-class parents living on the edge of rural poverty in Southern California, Nixon won his way through scholarships to Duke University, where he graduated with the highest academic honours in law.

After a spell as a small-town lawyer, followed by three years of wartime service as a U. …

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