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Book Review : Watergate Crosses Paths With Stone Wall of China

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The China Card by John Ehrlichman (Simon & Schuster: $18.95)

Most of John Ehrlichman’s former colleagues from the White House, not counting those doing the Lord’s work, have found satisfaction, or at least creature comfort, in the world of finance and commerce. The implications of their participation in corruption at the highest level of American government seem either lost on those who employ them, or serve as a kind of reverse bona fides. Ehrlichman shares with only G. Gordon Liddy the wit to have parlayed a fall from grace into an answered prayer, the reinvention of the self. Ehrlichman is a novelist.

He is not a bad one--not as novel-writing of his type goes these days. His publicists put him with John le Carre, a wishful but preposterous comparison, and with Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth, which is the right game and the wrong league.

Formulaic Adventure

“The China Card” is formulaic adventure, made more palpable by the familiarity of the U.S.-Chinese embrace in the public’s short-term memory: high-stakes international intrigue, real-life characters like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, exotic settings (if Peking can be said to be exotic), a Montague-and-Capulet romance between an American man and a Chinese woman, the gratuitous blazing of guns and shedding of blood, and the perpetration of bar-stool wisdom.

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But the real interest with Ehrlichman’s third novel, frankly, lies in the clues it may provide to what the author witnessed as one of Nixon’s closest aides. Ehrlichman, who busied himself chiefly with the President’s interests in domestic policy, has not been excessively repentant about his own behavior in the White House, for which he served a prison term. But his disaffected memoir of the Nixon years, “Witness to Power,” was rich in gossip, sharp observation and human insight.

The forgivable expectation upon opening this novel is that it will reveal some heretofore secret facet of the opening to China, or at least some plausible new spin on the way we have been given to understand its genesis. Ehrlichman’s first novel, “The Company,” published in 1978 (and later televised as “Washington: Behind Closed Doors”), intrigued many sophisticated students of the CIA for the questions it raised, between the lines, about Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

If “The China Card” carries such a message shrouded in its many, many lines, it is this: that the Chinese seduced a well-meaning young Nixon protege, who became an unwitting, or at least headless, mole in the Nixon White House, providing the necessary intelligence from Peking to orchestrate the 1972 rapprochement between (as it was Nixon’s conceit to say) the most populous nation on earth and the most powerful one.

Taken more or less literally--the obscure individual, still hiding his light under a bushel, as the free agent of contemporary history--the premise merits only fleeting contemplation. Taken as a fictional distillation of an idea, however--that the Chinese themselves had a great deal to do with Nixon and Kissinger’s vaunted diplomatic triumphs, and may have played these two behemoths like marionettes to their own ends--the premise is not only plausible but compelling. It is perhaps beyond compelling to self-evident.

The same may be said, alas, of the needless exposition of young Matthew Thompson’s exploits. This bushy-tailed lawyer is an idealist of the sort the Nixonites scorned, and his motivations are decidedly personal. His father taught in China when Matthews was a wee lad, establishing friendships with many young Chinese who would end up in Chou En-lai’s entourage; later he joined the faculty of Whittier College, where Richard Nixon was his pupil. This ancestral connection (a nice touch in a novel about China) lands Matthew at the New York law firm where Nixon practiced before the 1968 election, and unaccountably buys him the respect of the future President as an expert on China. So it is that his position in Nixon’s inner circle catches the eye of the pro-rapprochement Chinese. The rest is, or isn’t, history.

Gentle Mischief

Ehrlichman’s descriptions of Matt Thompson’s introduction to the eccentric and unapproachable Nixon are full of the zest with which any of us might like to tell a boss who shafted us what we really thought of him. H. R. Haldeman’s well-known penchant for ignoring Nixon’s most ignoble or deranged commands (for which the world should be more grateful) is given full play, as is Henry Kissinger’s egomania, which would be startling in these pages were it not so well known. The author is capable of even gentler mischief: When we meet Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, she is “talking on the telephone while reaching athletically into a file cabinet behind her . . . “--as she would do again in a more historic moment, the erasure of 18 minutes of recorded White House conversations.

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The man upon whom the novel is supposed to turn, however, is “never fully realized,” as the reviewers like to say; it may be no coincidence that Thompson is the one pure figment of Ehrlichman’s imagination. (Actually, there is another--the comely Chinese translator, Wang Li-fa, who might be played convincingly by Tuesday Weld.) Thompson is a likable naif, impressed by the power that tumbles his way, and earnest as peanut butter about the role he must play. Here his mind whirs like a Hardy Boy’s as his Chinese intermediary ushers him in to meet Chou: “So Teng was wired in at the highest level, as Matt had suspected! And he, a young and inexperienced American lawyer, had become the go-between for Richard Nixon and Chou En-lai. Face to face! God damn!”

No Regard for the Individual

At the end, as Kissinger and Chou are huddling in Peking to arrange Nixon’s historic visit to China, Thompson has the satisfaction of pulling a monumental fast one on Henry Kissinger, something few mortals can claim. And then, all but stamping his foot, he tells the two statesmen just what he thinks of them: “I’ve learned a lot from you two. I think it’s ironic that one of the great international developments of the century will have been accomplished by two people who are totally unworthy of the respect of the people of China and the United States. You use people without regard for the value of the individual. To you two, the ends justify any means at all, don’t they?”

This is the kind of lecture that Kissinger and Chou probably lost a lot of sleep over. In “The China Card,” you won’t either.

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