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Revisiting Nixon

Arrogance of Power a provocative version of the Nixon story

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If the scope and scale of Anthony Summers' extraordinary book The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon seem at first unrealistic in biographical terms, it might be instructive to note that Nixon himself remained impenetrable even to those closest to him. It is, therefore, a Nixonian irony that so many authors have attempted to crack his code; and the publishing industry is positively littered with remarkable failures. Summers' failure is perhaps unique because it presumes that a "secret world" is, in any final sense, knowable.

To suggest that knowing Nixon's secrets would be to know Nixon himself is over-stating the case in two ways: first, the historical record is necessarily incomplete and grows ever more fragmentary each day; second, Nixon was not the only person in the world who ever lied to consolidate power. Anyone requiring proof of this should consider President Clinton's own cynical fusion of PC nonsense and moral affectation. Thus are Tricky Dick and Slick Willie inextricably linked in the "arrogance of power."

As the Nixon tapes become more readily available to the cultures of presidential punditry, pop-psychology and a second generation of conspiracy theorists, the metaphor of an essential American degeneracy encoded among 2,765 hours of bureaucratic twaddle is a highly specialized perversity to be sure, but not a harbinger of the plague. Then White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman's prosaic view of the tape question seems, in retrospect, closer to the plain truth than the fantastical pronouncements of the Watergate Hearings:

"Imagine your own feeling if you were to open your Monday morning paper and find that someone had taped all the conversations in your home over the weekend -- then selected the very worst segments and printed them in the paper. That's just about what happened to us."

And that's just about enough to indict Summers for writing a great book with immodest ambitions and 26 years of accumulated hysteria, confusion, deception and horror. Withal, one can credit Summers for assembling, from the mélange of fact and speculation and paranoia, a provocative version of the Nixon story; for indeed, Nixon, like the prototypical American, is properly understood not as a person, but a narrative with a secret ending.

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