Robert Dallek: How he handles Nixon in Nixon and Kissinger book

Historians in the News

[Michael Nelson is a professor of political science at Rhodes College. He is author, with John Mason, of How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation (Louisiana State University Press, 2007) and, with Sidney Milkis, The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2007 (CQ Press, 2007).]

... In trying to make sense of Nixon, Dallek seems to follow Reeves's 2001 book, President Nixon: Alone in the White House, in arguing that Nixon was mainly motivated by his twin desires to win elections and do great things in foreign policy. But it's not evident that Dallek understands what Reeves understood: Nixon wanted to win elections in order to do great things in foreign policy. Dallek also puzzles, as Reeves did, about why so flawed an individual as Nixon chose politics as his vocation, but it's Reeves who figured out that Nixon saw politics as the arena in which, through great deeds, he could become a better person than he knew himself to be by nature. "Each day a chance to do something memorable for someone," Nixon wrote on one of many Reeves-quoted lists he drew up for himself as president. "Need to be good to do good. Need for joy, serenity, confidence, inspirational. Goals: Set example, inspire, instill pride."

Perhaps to compensate for the absence of document-generated revelations or insights in his book, Dallek sometimes inserts offhand claims that take him recklessly beyond the archival record, in which he is, if not interesting, at least secure. For example, more than once he writes that a rapid pullout from Vietnam, far from signaling weakness to the world, as Nixon and Kissinger believed, would have signaled strength. But where's the evidence or even the argument to support that claim? Does Dallek seriously think that Nixon could have conceded defeat to the Communists in Vietnam without losing the political base that enabled him to pull off his openings to the two major Communist powers?

Elsewhere Dallek asserts (again, more than once) that when Watergate heated up after Nixon had the special prosecutor Archibald Cox fired in the October 20, 1973, "Saturday Night Massacre," Nixon should have invoked the 25th Amendment, "suspended his authority until his culpability could be determined," and turned the powers of the presidency over to "Gerald Ford or House Speaker Carl Albert." But after Spiro Agnew had resigned, Ford wasn't confirmed as vice president until December, and Albert was a notorious public drunk. Besides, the 25th Amendment deals with presidential disability — comas, nervous collapses, recovery from heart attacks, and the like. As its legislative authors made clear when Congress approved the amendment, in 1965, it was never meant to supplant the impeachment process....

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