Marks of Weakness
Breach of Faith, The . Fall of Richard Nixon Theodore H. White (Jonathan Cape £4.95)
My brain hurts. This may well be because I have just read a whole book, which is a rash and difficult thing to do at the best of times, but an even more arduous assignment in the case of Theodore White's latest Volume. The writer has taken a grand, tragic theme, but the grandeur has been doubly crushed, once by a profusion of Words and once again by a profusion of errors. Of course, the failure is not total. The story of President Nixon's fall is such an astonishing tale that not even Mr White's misconceptions and lexical pile-driver can remove from it all of its drama. The opening chapter, in particular, relating in detail the last two weeks of Nixon's Presidency, is a fine piece of work. The reader Learns how General Haig became acting-President and how Professor Schlesinger at the Pentagon quietly usurped the military powers of the President. If he is a Prudent -reader, or in delicate health, he will stun there. For to read on is to become exasperated with Mr White's view of America and the world and stultified by his language— although in its way even the language is rewarding, as is any curiosity, and if you like mixed and meaningless metaphors, if you think cool" is a noun and "serpentine" a verb, if you have a bottomless craving for compound adjectives of somewhat less than Homeric stature, this is definitely the book for you. Certainly, if the valleys of California are 'sun-washed," there is no reason why the island of Bimini should not be "sun-buttered,and both paradises lying beneath the "milkbluesky. It becomes a little harder when you are asked to contemplate the "hollow man Whose perimeters of dignity must be preserved SO that he could think." Having mastered that, You are ready for the sequence of events which `Massaged to afflatus what Henry Kissinger Was later to tell friends was the Walter Mitty streak, in Richard Nixon's character, that captivating iridescence he saw in any invitation te toughness." This sort of stuff is simply rubbish, and it litters almost evey page of the book. If it merely made the book untidy, little harm would be done, but this is not the case. The imprecision of language, in the truly Orwellian sense, matches the imprecision of thought. It may be that the former is required to conceal the latter, that God, having endowed Mr White with a tYPewriter, somehow neglected to endow him with the faculty of coherent thought. If so, it must constitute negligence, the effects of which are aggravated by the epic nature of the events to which the book addresses itself. It was not enough for Mr White to think of the future, or of the limits of civilisation; he must think about the ultimate, far-off limits of future civilisation." He tries to deal with what he says in one of the silliest claims on record is the "simplest" definition of history: that it is the tale of great forces that bear down on solitary men who accidentally stand at their junction. I see an express train going through Clapham, but I do not see Herodotus.
No, Mr White, the simplest definition of history is the original one; it is an enquiry, and Herodotus and Thucydides have stood the test of time because they enquired, they wrote down what they discovered, and remained unencumbered by preconceptions. There is no distinction between the historian's job and the reporter's, and neither is made any easier by close personal connection to the actual men who are the subject of the enquiry, Mr White says that a reporter "cannot report unless he tries to understand the man and get to know him." Up to a point this is true, but Mr White later says (of Herb Klein) that he had "like so many newsmen, been tugged across the line between hard reporting and the warm affection newsmen feel when they meet the candidate of their hearts." This book shows the force of just such a tug. For instance, Mr White claims for Nixon "the achievement of peace and the release of America from thirty years of war." Well, I was briefly a war correspondent myself, but I must have missed a war somewhere along the line. Of the 1970 invasion into Cambodia, Mr White says it was "the most successful American offensive of the entire Vietnam War," in keeping with Nixon's decision, from the moment he took office, "to liquidate the war in Vietnam." Well, with respect to the Big Lie technique, these breathtaking claims are nothing more or less than straight Nixon propaganda. A man who will believe that will believe anything. The habit of objectivity in such a man belongs to that side of his character which I am disposed to view with the least complacency.
Be that as it may, Mr White has always been a diligent worker, and there are a great many doors open to him in the corridors of American power. If, like me, you are one of that miserable company sharing an unquenchable fascination for American politics in general and Richard Nixon in particular, there is much for you in this book. It was a splendid discovery to hear the New York boss say of Haldeman (then head of the J. Walter Thompson headquarters in Los Angeles): "Our records show he shouldn't be in charge of anything." And Dr Kissinger's dislike of the Press, together with his ability to believe his own propaganda, is once again nailed down.
But these are brush-strokes. However, colourful, revealing and abundant, they do not make a picture, and you are caught at the end of the book with a feeling of deep dissatisfaction, that the picture has been wrongly drawn and left incomplete. I believe this to be because Mr White has invented a picture to suit his own turn of mind, that he persisted in seeing Mr Nixon as he was not. One instance may throw light on this. "The more often one visited Washington," writes Mr White, "in the winter and spring months of 1974, the more confused one became." I did not visit Washington during those months; I was there the whole time. I did not have the disadvantage of Mr White's personal contacts. I can only say that for all of us studying and writing about Watergate, it was not a specially confusing time. It was a complicated time, certainly, but thanks to the previous work of a few journalists and to the continuing work of the Special Prosecutor's office, it was perfectly clear what sort of man Richard Nixon was and what sort of presidency he had run.
Mr White's book, unfortunately, is not perfectly clear. Towards the end, as you stumble through the smokescreen of adjective and metaphor, comes the following pasage: "each week brought partial answers to last week's questions which raised more questions and, in their confusion, they crashed on the mind, numbing it." Mr White, I now know just how you felt.