Alex Danchev traces the rise and fall of co-dependent egomanics
Unlike his protagonists, Robert Dallek has the virtue of straightforwardness. He begins as he means to go on. "This book," he declares, "is about the exercise of power by two of the most important practitioners of the art in the 20th century: President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, whose unprecedented influence as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State made him a kind of co-president, especially during the Administration's turmoil over Watergate." This is well-trodden ground and yet still remarkably fertile. As Dallek disarmingly observes, "We know almost all of what they did during their five and a half years in the White House [1969-74]; their major initiatives were and remain landmarks in the history of American foreign policy": the drawn-out ending of the war in Vietnam, the spectacular opening to China, the tortuous detente with the Soviet Union, the cynical overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, the talking-up and talking-down of peace in the Middle East, the whole repertoire of tilting, balancing, parlaying, flattering, brow- beating, bad-mouthing, back-channelling, manipulating, nodding, winking, dissembling and double-crossing by which that maestro of diplomacy, that modern-day Metternich, the mettlesome, meddlesome Dr Kissinger, lived and (professionally speaking) died.
We know what they got up to. We are less clear about why - about motivation, rationalisation, gratification. Here is Dallek's point of entry. "I hope my recounting of the Nixon and Kissinger life stories will cast fresh light on who they were and why and how they collaborated in their use and abuse of power." He proposes something like a psychopathology of power, a concoction of high ambition, high office and high crimes and misdemeanours. Piloting the reader through the murk, Dallek is at once clear and undogmatic. If the work has a theme, it is that politicking and policy-making went hand-in-hand and that, in his formulation, foreign policy became the captive of domestic politics. Dallek does not explicitly say that the manifestation of domestic politics for which Nixon will always be remembered - Watergate - sprang in some fashion from the his deep-seated demons, or that the burglaries and the bugging and the cover-up (and the cover-up of the cover-up) were not an aberration but an expression of his personality - that for Trick E. Dixon Watergate was a way of life - but the imputation is there.
Nixon and Kissinger appears as a recognised form - a joint biography - yet unlike most of these works (Churchill and Lloyd George, Hitler and Stalin), the two characters and careers are not merely juxtaposed or compared, but intimately related; it is the very nature of the relationship that is the focus of attention. This odd couple was odd in many dimensions, as Louis Menand has said, not least in their deceiving and self-deceiving inseparability. Dallek's "Nixinger", or perhaps more suggestively "Kisson", examines not only co-presidency but co-dependency, a relationship of mutual need, fed by a volatile mix of egomania and insecurity - a Greek tragedy (as Kissinger remarked characteristically of Nixon) degenerating into a squalid conspiracy.
As it turns out, the book offers both more and less than this psychologising might suggest. Speculation is not Dallek's forte. He cares little for drama or pyrotechnics; he eschews anything fancy. Almost as if writing against his temperamental and self-interested subjects, his tone is measured, his judgments mild. As a diplomatic historian, he is a master craftsman. As a presidential biographer, he has a nose like a bloodhound for the trail of evidence. His manner is expository. In Nixon and Kissinger , the deft recounting of the life stories is no more than a prelude to those five and a half years in the White House. The bulk of the book is a serial exposition of their foreign policy in action, all over the world, interleaved with domestic political calculation. This is inevitably a synthesis of the work of others, generously credited, but it is also infused with the recent outpouring of fascinating (and incriminating) declassified documents, tape recordings and telephone transcripts.
The unfolding of the foreign policy is finely done. The depiction of Nixon and Kissinger using and abusing power is perhaps the most scrupulous and convincing yet written. Dallek's expertise, his human sympathy, his skill in reconstruction, together with his determination not to over-press his hand and, above all, not to over-write, gives his account an incontestable authority. Yet there is a price to be paid for this self-restraint. The stylistic plainness sometimes verges on flatness; there is a certain sameness to the narrative of events, especially of protracted diplomatic negotiations; the summary conclusions, in a brief "Epilogue", do not do justice to the richness of the foregoing inquiry. In the text, incongruously, Kissinger is often "Henry", a jarring familiarity not shared by any other character. In the notes, however, Henry gets his comeuppance. His memoirs, carefully calibrated exercises in exculpation, bloated with self-regard, are given the cherishable abbreviations of WHY (White House Years), irresistibly recalling Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam? and YOU (Years of Upheaval) .
Dallek has his difficulties with Kissinger. The co-president is of course a prime witness. Dallek acknowledges "a number of people who agreed to share their knowledge of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger with me". Spookily, they include Dr Henry Kissinger. It becomes almost impossible for the author to avoid entering into a kind of dialogue with these two, subtly discordant, personifications: the historic Kissinger, the player and policy-maker; and the apologetic Kissinger, the custodian of his own legend. Both provide important evidence. Neither is to be trusted. The slippage between the two requires special vigilance. Dallek is well aware of this, but his presentation of the evidence does not always make the distinction plain. After spending two weeks in Vietnam in 1965, Kissinger, he reports, believed: "We had involved ourselves in a war which we neither knew how to win nor how to conclude." If that sounds uncommonly prescient, it transpires that it is drawn from WHY , long afterwards, in 1979. So much may be inferred from the notes at the back of the book; it is not made clear in the text.
A number of questions seem to fall outside the scope of Dallek's self-imposed remit, though they are suggested by it. His compelling account of Watergate serves to underscore the critical significance of the notorious Nixon tapes (expletives deleted). The tapes provide something close to conclusive proof; they also became an issue in themselves. Dallek is surprisingly incurious about them and the difference that they made. Did Nixon speak for the record? Did he try to entrap? Did the wily Henry suspect what was afoot? Eavesdropping of all kinds was rife in the White House, as Kissinger well knew. In conversation with Nixon about Watergate, he is keen to protest his ignorance. He protests too much, as Nixon artlessly reminds him.
For Nixon and his gang, the tape was a kind of talisman. It unspooled into ruination.
Dallek may be found wanting here, but as the end nears, he offers a marvellous vignette of the doomed Nixon, alone in his lair, earphones on, hunched over a tape recorder, replaying his own words, as if rehearsing his version of Krapp's Last Tape . Perhaps only Samuel Beckett could do full justice to Richard Nixon.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at Nottingham University.
Nixon and Kissinger
Author - Robert Dallek
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 740
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 9780713997965