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A Modified Limited Hangout : ONE OF US: Richard Nixon and the American Dream, <i> By Tom Wicker (Random House: $24.95; 731 pp.) </i>

<i> Nolan covered the Nixon White House for The Boston Globe, where he is now an associate editor. </i>

Not since James Knox Polk, who kept a meticulous diary, have Americans known a President as seemingly self-revealing as Richard M. Nixon, author of five books, mostly about foreign policy, since he published his memoirs in 1978. Nor has Nixon lacked for serious biographers, as those who enjoyed the efforts of Roger Morris and Stephen E. Ambrose can attest.

Curiosity about the brooding loner from the lemon groves of Yorba Linda persists today, 17 years after he resigned in disgrace. For those who loved him and those who did not, Tom Wicker, columnist for the New York Times, has channeled his obsession into an admirable biography.

This summation of Nixon from a liberal critic fulfills the wish that Nixon asked from the press in his famous “last press conference” in 1962 after losing the governorship of California. Wicker gives Nixon “a fair shake.” He has catalogued many of Nixon’s considerable accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy, all obscured in historical perspective by Watergate, toward which the author is too forgiving.

On the emotional issue of Vietnam, Wicker challenges critics of Nixon’s “silent majority” speech in which he said, “A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends.” Nixon, who invested most of his sincerity in a strategic American Realpolitik, “is often scoffed at as a man of no principle, motivated only by political advantage. On the question of continuing the war, however, critics can’t have it both ways--that he refused to withdraw and had no principles. Had the latter been true, he almost surely would have abandoned the war in his first months in office.”

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Nixon’s place in history may await the shrinking of both Watergate and Vietnam in historical perspective. In chapters called “Reformer” and “Keynesian,” Wicker details how Nixon, with the advice of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, empathized with and fought for the poor more than any succeeding President. Had Democrats in Congress accepted Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan 20 years ago, America’s children would be better off today. Just as he boldly sought detente with China and the Soviet Union, so Nixon was unafraid to innovate domestically and to defy ideology, as he did in freezing wages and prices in 1971.

Why did he do it? Motivation, Wicker writes, is “a central question about Richard Nixon. Did he want to do great things, or only to get credit for doing them? Or perhaps the true question is whether that really matters, for Nixon or anyone, assuming the great things get done--or, if they don’t, that a genuine effort has been made. Does purity of motive confer some finer quality upon achievement? If the urge to do good is really the desire for credit, or if the urge is stimulated by the desire, is the good that may be done diminished?” Wicker does not answer these questions but asks them engagingly.

Nixon did not talk to Wicker for this biography, forcing the author to rely upon Nixon’s published works as evidence. These writings, alas, damage Nixon’s case because as a memoirist the former President is less persuasive than as a politician. The self-serving cant of Nixon prose is evident in Wicker’s first citation from “Six Crises”: “I knew that what was most important was that I must be myself.” Nixon regarded sincerity as an option, and his version of events do not always jibe with that of others.

Nixon also had to battle myths not of his making. “As John Kennedy’s opponent in 1960, he became the man Kennedy idolaters --and there are many--love to hate,” Wicker writes. “His determined waging of the war in Vietnam and his ambiguous withdrawal from it remain more prominently in memory than many less dramatic events. All this has helped deny him his due for domestic achievement.”

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When “One of Us” wanders away from its main subject and sketches events of Nixon’s time, the book becomes less Nixon-obsessive-appealing and more New York Times-dutiful. Nixon is like a dominating screen presence, an amalgam of leading man and character actor--Lee Marvin, Sean Connery, even John Wayne--whose absence from the action tends to make the audience doze off. An exposition of Nixon’s possible drinking problem, for instance, is far more interesting for two pages than an account of the 1968 presidential election is for 20. Wicker, one of the most graceful writers ever to cover American politics, slogs through recent history in a Nixonian cadence, captive of the biographical equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome.

Former Secretary of State William Rogers, a Nixon loyalist, told Wicker that Nixon’s “body language indicated uncertainty.” “Do you think,” asked Arthur Burns, former Federal Reserve chairman, “that he ever had a really good, close, personal friend?”

Those sympathizing with such an inferiority complex might beware of its flip side, a superiority complex. Wicker does not engage in psycho-history but this work, which Marxists call “revisionist,” forgives Watergate more readily than credibility demands. It is especially distressing that Wicker paraphrases Lord Acton’s dictum of power to do so: “Because power corrupts, and because the real and effective power of an American President had been so greatly expanded, by the time Richard Nixon reached the White House, Watergate or something equally disreputable was a disaster waiting to happen.”

Is Richard Nixon a victim of history? Lord Acton would not think so. Leaders must be denied “a favorable presumption that they did no wrong,” he wrote in 1887. “Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Would “one of us” treat an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution so lightly? Wicker defames Americans to defend his subject. Nixon deserves a better shake from history and Wicker helps him get it, but it is fruitless to deny that he was seduced by power. Acton had the papacy in mind when he wrote, “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

That was Richard Nixon’s heresy. He did many admirable things but failed when he acted as though he and his holy office, “the presidency,” were above the law that he had sworn to uphold.


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