The Underside of
The Nixon Years

J. Anthony Lukas
(University of Ohio)
The Public

Robert Coover
(Grove Press)

<Historical works like Nightmare should be banned, thrown on the fire heap, destroyed, burned down to less than ashes.

I say this because of what it does to those of us who are book nuts, and who lived through it. We pick Nightmare up to leaf through it, and six hours later, we're on page 150, unable to stop. Lukas, now, alas, dead of self-inflicted wounds, went on to write other historical classics, like Common Ground and Big Trouble. But nothing, we suspect, has the draw --- at least for those of us who were there, so much a part of it.

How did he do it? First of all he has a carefully contained subject --- the five years of spying, disruptive malfeasances under Nixon, all of which came together under the sobriquet of "Watergate."

Secondly, he knows how to tell a story --- with flow, pacing, and balance.Third, the story has its own dynamic: Richard Nixon --- part effective politician and administrator, part sentimentalist, part Borgia, and --- at the same time --- the worst enemy Richard Nixon could ever have.

Finally, there are the delicious details --- especially those characters we all reveled in at the time: prissy John Dean (and wife Mo!); Sam Ervin of the uncontrollable eyebrows; Haldeman with his obnoxious flat-top haircut (and, according to Lukas, not a whit of a sense of humor;) Howard Hunt in his fright-wig; James McCord, the man who valued his family over any government hanky-panky, and thus blew the biggest whistle; soon-to-get-god Charles Colson of the furrowed brow; Judge Sirica who, by holding the defendants feet to the fire, forced four of the five to break their silence (and thereby disgusted constitutional scholars; theoretically, a jurist does not use heavy-handed sentencing as a tool to get to the truth.)

§     §     §

There are new items here, things we never knew at the time. We never knew how close Pete Rodino's committee came to not voting out articles of impeachment --- never knew how subtly Rodino (looking like your typical bought New Jersey hack politician) came up with a consensus.

Too, we never guessed that straight-arrow, Mr. Clean Alex Butterfield --- the one who revealed the presence of the tape recording system in the president's office, thus, albeit reluctantly, bringing him down --- was also a bagman, involved in delivering cash early on to one Leonard Lilly, establishing the first pile of $350,000 of hush money.

And we never knew that the quintessential Brahmin Elliot Richardson was a bit of a political hack himself, supporting Nixon's appalling incursion into Cambodia, never saying a thing about the "Christmas bombing" of Hanoi.

The biggest surprise of all is that the plumbers came into existence because Nixon and Kissinger were, at least in international affairs, on the right track. They were involved in three very secret, and very important, simultaneous negotiations. They were:

  • The SALT Treaty Negotiations between Russia and the United States in Helsinki;
  • The negotiations with North Vietnam, which were finally to end the war; and
  • Negotiations leading to the opening up of China.

The press leaks were compromising the works of the administration, for if secret proposals were to appear on the front pages of The New York Times the next day, the paranoid Russians, not to say the Viet Namese and Chinese, would have no confidence at all in the negotiators nor the negotiations.

These meetings were vital: they were, for the first time, a chance to move America's foreign relations out of the dark ages of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson; further, they were to lead us out of the constant, stomach-churning threat of nuclear war; they were, finally, to change the world's balance-of-power immensely, and for the better.

No matter what you and I think of the self-torturing, self-limiting Nixon, and the vile revelations in Nightmare, he and Metternich Kissinger were working to end the uncontrolled nightmare that was the war between international communism and corporate statism. That he succeeded is a tribute to that very strange, haunted man; that he brought him and his administration down in the process is the tragedy.

The loonies --- Hunt, Colson, LaRue, Liddy, et al --- were all part of this team that was trying to do something about the appalling state of the world, the appalling fear of all of us for our future, our children's future. Thus the roots of Nightmare.

§     §     §

Meanwhile, Grove Press has reissued The Public Burning. They compare it, PR style, to Lolita, The Invisible Man, and Catch-22.

T'aint so. It's a hotchpotch, reminiscent of perhaps John Dos Passos's fat USA Trilogy. Coover's tome focuses on the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, with a thorough rehash of the fear and trembling of those days: fear of Communists taking over the world, the fear that quickly turned American liberties --- civil and otherwise --- to a hash (a state-run search-and-destroy mission not unlike those created by Stalin and Hitler; or ever more to the point, very much like our current schizoid disembowelment of Ten Amendments in what we so casually refer to as "the war on drugs.")

Much of the narrative is spent inside the head of Richard Nixon, which must by definition be a bore and a waste: a dullard by persuasion, his tale can never be beyond the merely tedious. Like most of Shakespeare's heroes --- and if he weren't so purely of our time, he might be considered one --- it's hard to create affection or even interest in such a haunted man. Who, in other words, would want to spend a weekend jawing with King Lear, Julius Caesar, Richard II --- or Dick Nixon, for that matter? (Bebe Rebozo said they never exchanged more than a few words whenever they were together).

The terror of the 50s --- the creeps running this country really did believe the Communists were about to take us over --- is at the heart of The Public Burning and the nature of that terror may be its most artful representation. But the rest of the shenanigans --- the reproduction of the death house in Times Square, for example --- is simply bad Woody Allen, or an overwrought Day of the Locust.

--- F. W. Renfrow


Muriel Spark
(New Directions)

< Some of us are dogs for completion. We pick up a book, and if we give the author the benefit of ten or twenty or even fifty pages, we expect to stay with it to the last.

Alas, with Ms. Spark, one would have to be a dog for punishment to hold on all the way through The Bachelors. We tried.

The tale has to do with Droll but Doughty England (postwar --- it was first published in 1960.) It has to do with spiritualism, and unmarried men (thus the title), some tied to their mothers, some fruitcakes, and one even given to gran mal seizures --- putting us in the the vain hopes of a loopy version of The Idiot --- or at least a 20th Century English take on The Brothers Karamazov.

It isn't to be. Ms. Spark is too fey, too Waugh-ian, or, possibly, too subtle for cowboys like us.

Now we are not offended or even bored by English drollery. We have made our way through the best of them --- from Austin to Thackeray, from Waugh to Kingsley Amis and even, god knows, to other volumes by Ms. Spark. (Memento Mori was a nice take on geezerhood: failing memory, paranoia of the ageing, ancient habits mixed with greed and pure English literary insult back-and-forth).

Bachelors does have its moments. After thirty or so novels, Ms. Spark can do dialogue to a fare-thee-well. This between two not very appealing characters having a go at it:

    She looked at him with quite a glow, and her face, haggard as it was, showed its youth. "I'll just have my drink," she said, "I'm enjoying this rest and opening my heart to somebody."

    She came over and sat on the arm of his chair. She began to finger his black curls. He turned and breathed hard upon her.

    "You remind me of Colin," she said, "in a certain respect. He used to be fond of onions and I minded at first, but I got used to it. So I don't mind your onion-breath very much."

    Matthew clasped her desperately round the waist, and sighed upon her as if to save his soul. But she too sighed and shivered with excitement as she subsided upon him...

It's economical, to the point, misses nothing --- except humanity. The only character spared the Sparkian rapier is the hero of The Bachelors --- the epileptic Ronald, who's a Catholic, of course (a Muriel Spark/Graham Greene kind of much-put-upon, sighing, cynical Catholic). Ronald turns out to be one we might enjoy getting to know, in a craggy way. But Spark's need to needle, endlessly needle spiritualists and gays and the hoi-polloi gets, in the end, to be too much --- letting this particular reader off the boat around page 150. Which, as they say in England, was still quite a go.

---Carlos Amantea

What If?
The World's Foremost
Military Historians
Imagine What
Might Have Been

Robert Cowley, Editor
(G. P. Putnam)

<According to Historian Barry S. Straus, if there had been a single battle in the Middle Ages that went the other way, you and I would now be practicing Muslims. Can you imagine Oprah, Madonna and the Goo-Goo Girls appearing in veils and chandors, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, and Donald Trump intoning, "There is only god, and his name is Allah?" and all of us drinking sugary-sweet mint tea --- and on our knees, five times a day, bowing to the east.

The battle in question happened at Portiers --- on the fields of Tours --- in 732, where a Frankish army turned back Muslim invaders. The thesis is that, without the defeat, the Arabs would have continued northward, possibly taking over the whole of what is now Europe. Instead, with the victory of Charles the Pippinid, his grandson Charlemagne was able to lay "the foundations for what would follow in Europe --- from kingdoms like France and Germany ... to the Christian culture of cathedral schools and decorated manuscripts."

Too, there is one Thomas Fleming, with his "Thirteen Ways the Americans Could Have Lost the Revolution," including a reversal in Washington's attack on Trenton, Benedict Arnold's victory turning into a loss at Saratoga, or Captain Patrick Ferguson, "inventor of the first breech-loading rifle," who, at Brandywine Creek, had George Washington in his sights --- but decided not to shoot, because "He could not bring himself to shoot an unarmed enemy in the back."

Then there's Cowley's own "The What Ifs of 1914" --- where Great Britain, in the first months, teetered between neutrality and alliance with the French. It is possible, says Cowley, that had the English stayed out of the war, the conflict would have lasted scarcely two months, and

    The war would remain a continental affair...A bit more of France, including Nancy would be incorporated in the Reich...Germany would have initiated a Central European Economics Union.

He even claims that at Gheluvelt chateau, on October 31, 1914, if a young private, Adolf Hitler, might have been killed or captured, and "History --- the real version --- would have been deprived of one of its true monsters."

§     §     §

This is all historical if not hysterical nonsense, of course. What If tells us less about the vagaries of history than it does about the myopic blindsidedness of your typical professional historian. What these science-fiction stories dwell on is a pretense of logic and historical determinism; what they all ignore is the sweet chance and illogic of humanity. "If Charles Martel had lost..."

But what if Charles Martel had lost, and his loss scared the hell out of the Franks, and a week later, the battle had been rejoined, to their ultimate victory? If Washington had been shot --- are we to believe that in the colonies there was no one to take his place --- a lowly Captain, let's call him Robert Swindall, who was as ambitious and as cautious --- perhaps even a better strategist than Washington (after all, Washington lost more battles than he won). With the great man gone --- Swindall would have risen quickly to the top, and maybe sooner, maybe later, would bring the colonies to victory.

And World War I ending after a mere thirty-nine days? Who is to tell us that a quick German victory, and the capture of Paris, would have emboldened the English and alarmed the Americans --- so that in 1916, or 1927, or 1938 --- another of those endless "crises" so beloved of the colonial powers of the 20th Century (perhaps in Southwest Africa, Indonesia, or Pago-Pago) would have caused a second outbreak of War --- World War One-and-a-Half --- along with a new, perhaps even more vile version of trench warfare (which is after all, a state of war in which the two sides are equal in manpower, in technology, and strategic thinking.) This might --- who knows? (you and I and the historians don't) --- have led to an even longer, a more horrendous war.

And with the death of Hitler --- who is anyone to say, much less Robert Cowley, that "History...would have been deprived of one of its true monsters." Another Hitler might well have come along, and, with a later war, stumbled onto something called the atomic bomb. Which might have finished off 200,000,000, or 2,000,000,000...or all of us.

What we have here is the preternatural belief by intellectual chauvinists that history was, is, and always will be right, and reasonable, and predictable. Example: Fleming says that if we had lost the Revolutionary War,

    Americans would have been on their way to becoming replicas of the Canadians, tame, humble colonials in the triumphant British empire, without an iota of the independent spirit that has been the heart of the nation's identity.

In the old days, we would have called this arrogant, naked jingoism. For some of us, the chance to be more like the Canadians --- with their lively Parliament, their abhorrence of war (and their refusal to be arms-supplier to the world), with their generous and lively public service to the arts --- magnificent city planning, the CBC, the Canadian Film Board: for America to be more like them would have been a divine gift for all of us in the Lower and Benighted forty-eight.

Alas, if only Washington had had the good sense to surrender to the British at Manhattan. What splendor and peace would have been visited on this great country of ours, instead of the unpleasant, apocalyptic present: a land lashed about in its death throes with plagues of violence, neo-Puritanism, internal terrorism, drug war madness, and a misguided, ruinous need for international hanky-panky (vide, Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Bosnia).

--- W. K. Jenkins, PhD

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