Blogs > Cliopatria > Gil Troy: Review of Conrad Black's The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon (McClelland & Stewart)

Jun 7, 2007 8:01 pm

Gil Troy: Review of Conrad Black's The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon (McClelland & Stewart)

[Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University.]

This is an awkwardly written book written about one of America's most awkward politicians by an author caught in his own awkward predicament.

It is hard to read Conrad Black's book about Richard Nixon without linking the Watergate scandal that destroyed the U.S. president with the alleged financial abuses that have disgraced the media baron. Actually, it is simply hard to read this book. Slogging through more than 1,000 pages is challenging enough; wading through the bizarre word choices and infelicitous phrasings made reading this book an ordeal. In Black's world, the loud Bella Abzug was "voluminous" not voluble, you snatch defeat from the "stomach of victory," not the jaws. The title itself is nonsensical - how can a "quest" be "invincible"?

The semi-literate prose is unfortunate, because when he is not butchering the English language, Black tells a good story. He offers some fresh perspectives on his compelling subject, whose legendary life fused Greek tragedy with the American dream. Black appreciates Nixon's great achievements while condemning his foolish, self-destructive mistakes.

The book documents the difficulties this most anti-social of men had in this most social of professions. Unlike his serene mentor Dwight Eisenhower and his graceful nemesis John Kennedy, Richard Nixon was most famous for his sweat. Nixon laboured to overcome his lower-middle-class origins in pre-boom time southern California, attending law school in the 1930s and serving in the navy during the Second World War. His huffing and puffing worked. Born in 1913, he became a congressman in 1947, moving up to the Senate in 1951. By 1952, not yet 40, he was Eisenhower's victorious vice-presidential running mate.

Along the way, Nixon acquired a reputation as "Tricky Dick," the Republican hatchet man. Black recounts the battles that scarred young Nixon, especially his tough prosecution of the State Department traitor Alger Hiss, his bruising battle for the Senate against the "Pink Lady," Helen Gahagan Douglas, and his 1952 humiliation when accused of benefiting from a millionaires' "slush fund" for Senate expenses. Without caricaturing Nixon, Black portrays someone who, for all his faults, was unfairly abused by his critics.

By 1960, Nixon had proved to be a formidable Cold Warrior and possibly America's most consequential vice-president, yet he was only in mid-career. Heartbreaking losses in his 1960 run against Kennedy for the presidency and his 1962 bid for the California governorship sent him to private life. Yet in 1968 he won the presidency after a horrific year of political assassinations and riots.

Black considers Nixon a great president, establishing detente with China and the Soviet Union, seeking peace in the Middle East, pushing a moderate domestic agenda that included establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Black blames the Democrats for the Vietnam War, saying by January 1973 Nixon had extricated his country from the conflict on reasonable terms. Fresh from his landslide re-election and diplomatic triumphs, Nixon expected sweet vindication as a popular and successful president.

Black says Nixon stumbled - and ultimately failed, resigning as president in August 1974 - because success made him complacent, not because of his ruthless drive to win. Hubris, not an established record of criminality and immorality, is the flaw Black sees in his subject. The Watergate scandal then becomes a series of bungles that ended Nixon's presidency and turned the Vietnam stalemate into a devastating American loss. Feeling freer to speculate about "what ifs" than most historians, Black believes that the Democratic Congress, empowered by Nixon's failure, abandoned South Vietnam, setting the stage for the Communist invasion and U.S. humiliation.

Phoenix-like, Nixon rose again, becoming an elder statesman and foreign policy expert. By the time he died in 1994, the Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, and Nixon's egomaniacal rival Henry Kissinger eulogized him while millions lionized him. Nixon's story represents the peaks that most ordinary American could reach while reaffirming that no one is above the law.

Nixon self-pityingly predicted the Watergate scandal would eclipse his achievements. In making a brief for this president who was "viciously and unfairly attacked by the media, [and] the Democrats," in concluding "he fully paid for his misdeeds," Black hopes to vindicate Nixon. One walks away wondering whether Black is also hoping the public - and the jury he now faces - will similarly vindicate him.

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Maarja Krusten - 6/12/2007

According to NARA Chron 5 consists of an estimated
1075 hours.

posted by Smartphone

Maarja Krusten - 6/12/2007

According to NARA Chron 5 consists of an estimated
1075 hours.

posted by Smartphone

Maarja Krusten - 6/12/2007

in Maclean's magazine for an excerpt from Conrad Black's book about Richard Nixon. The part that caught my eye deals with Nixon’s archival materials and reads:

"In December, the Congress passed the Presidential Records and Materials Act of 1974, which didn't dispute that Nixon owned his papers and tapes, but required the Archives to keep and protect them and open them at their own discretion to the public to reveal the 'full truth ... of the abuses of governmental power.' Nixon challenged this act and in June 1977, the Supreme Court, by 7 to 2 (with Burger and Rehnquist in dissent), upheld the act, but Nixon continued with extraordinary ingenuity and perseverance and legally prevented the intended purpose of the act from being effected. Once the hysteria against him had fully subsided, the courts could not sustain a different treatment of him compared with other presidents, and his literary executors eventually won control of the materials, but the struggle was still unfolding more than 30 years after he left the White House. Again, the post-presidential Nixon would have the best of the dispute: his right to his documents was upheld, and his executors ultimately have a greater level of ownership of his materials than would any other modern president. Nixon's legendary tenacity did not abate in his life and did not die with him."

I believe Black is referring to the monetary compensation lawsuit which led in the 1990s to a court finding that the U.S. should pay Nixon for the seizure of his materials. (The records of his Presidential predecessors were considered personal property.) However, since Black writes that Nixon's tenacity did not die with him, he may have something else in mind.

Which leads me to an update on Nixon's tapes. Three and a half years after the release of the last 240-hour segment of Nixon's tapes in December 2003 (during the tenure of Archivist John Carlin), the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) now is proposing to open a tiny 11-1/2 hour segment of three tapes for November 1972. (See Federal Register, May 31, 2007, p.30397, available through .

This proposed opening differs from past patterns and practices. Indeed, the settlement agreement in Kutler v. Wilson (Civ. A. 92-662-NHJ), available at ,
states that the Nixon tapes will be opened in five segments, the last segment (Chron 5) covering tapes recorded between November 1972 and July 1973. The Kutler settlement agreement notes that "Processing of the tapes in each segment is projected to take from about fifteen (15) to about twenty three (23) months." The 240 hours of tapes comprising Chron 4 were released in December 2003. The estimate is not binding but the settlement agreement notes that the federal court retains jurisdiction for a binding order. Based on my past experiences as a NARA employee who once worked on screening Nixon’s tapes to see what could be released to the public, the May 31, 2007 FR notice appears so strikingly anomalous to me as to represent a red flag. However, this does not appear to be an issue that has attracted much attention on historians' blogs.

I. M. Trenchant - 5/31/2007

Gil Troy's review of 'The Invincible Quest' by Conrad Black is an exercize in the thoroughly modern conceit of ignoring the task at hand: to review a book. Instead, Troy documents his 'hangups' about the author and the author's subject, i.e., enough about the book, let's talk about me and my views about Nixon and Black. Troy's assault on Black, whose personal difficulties are independent of the merits of his book, is irrelevant. The final paragraph of Troy's review is exemplary of what is generally wrong with Troy's review of Black's book. The first sentence of Troy's final paragraph is, very simply, false. Nixon never, at any time, wrote or said what Troy attributes to him, i.e., that "the Watergate scandal would eclipse his achievements." On the contrary, Nixon dispassionately (not "self-pityingly") wrote and said, whenever he was asked, that his place in history would be depend on the historian who writes the history. It appears that, as usual, Nixon was right. Increasingly, as Nixon's more hysterical critics have passed from the scene, 'Watergate' has become nothing but a footnote to his historic achievements. As Gallup polling has demonstrated, Nixon is known to the general public, primarily, as the U.S. president who brought about a new geopolitical order through his Administration's 'opening' to China and its achievement of the first meaningful arms-limitation treaties with the USSR. As for Troy's assessments of Black's hopes, I found little in Black's very enjoyable 1034-page epic to suggest that he cares much at all about vindicating Nixon. Black seems at least as concerned to re-affirm his views about Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, Black's assignment of Nixon to a rank just beneath Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt is likely an underestimation. On the contrary , based on Black's two books about U.S. presidents (FDR and RMN), there seems every good reason to rank Nixon with Franklin Roosevelt and the other two worthies. If FDR had been obliged to face down a Congress and mass-media that were as hostile as Nixon was obliged to endure, it is unlikely that he'd have survived into his third term. As Ambrose indicated in his 3-volume trilogy of Nixon biography (much longer than Black's), Nixon was undoubtedly the "toughest" (and arguably the most intelligent) of all U.S. presidents. As the economist and Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman, told interviewer Charlie Rose, "Nixon was one of the smartest man I ever met." As Washington Post columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman was the first to note, in 1977, only a few years after he described Nixon in terms so unpleasant that he was summarily fired (from '60 Minutes') by CBS television in 1973, perceptions about the Nixon presidency would be extensively revised in the years ahead, and 'Watergate' would come to be recognized as a period of "hysterical contagion" of the sort that the U.S. has been prone to endure throughout its long and delightfully engrossing history.

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