Carl Bernstein says both new Nixon books are flawed

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Is it possible, four decades after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, to report and write a great narrative biography of the man and his presidency? Or, on a more manageable scale, to produce a masterful and comprehensive account of his presidency that traces its endemic criminality and abuse of power from beginning to end — yet still deals contextually with the remarkable complexities of Nixon’s character, his intellect, the loftier goals he brought to the White House and whatever genuine accomplishments are also part of his presidential legacy? Not quite yet, judging from two ambitious new works published this summer: Tim Weiner’s “One Man Against the World” and Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon.”

Weiner, attempting a more limited task, comes much closer to realizing his goal than Thomas does in his uber-biographical portrait. But Weiner ultimately misses the opportunity for a masterwork on the Nixon presidency, especially given the breadth of his research. He has accessed the latest materials, producing a fundamentally accurate and vivid picture of a criminal presidency — a kind of journalistic MRI of the bent spine of Nixon’s tenure. But there’s little of the tormented human being inhabiting the author’s pages, little sense of the president’s internal struggles and certainly not the stuff of real tragedy, despite Weiner’s subtitle. His Nixon is beyond dark — an uncomplicated, nearly evil stick figure — and his account is devoid of almost any exploration of how he got that way. Weiner’s gratuitous attribution of base motive to almost everything Nixon did, including the president’s domestic programs, tends to undermine reportorial and historical purpose.

The problem with Thomas’s picture of the Nixon presidency is the polar opposite: This author seems overly enamored of the kind of lofty thoughts and goals that Nixon often scribbled on yellow legal pads. (“Most powerful office.” “Need to be good to do good.” “Need for joy, serenity, confidence.” “Set example, inspire, instill pride.”) “Being Nixon” too often gives as much weight to the implications of these atmospheric, sometimes banal musings as to the reality of the conspiracy at the heart of his presidency and what he actually did in office.




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