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Monday, August 18, 2014

“Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America”, by Christopher J. Matthews

400 pages, Free Press, ISBN-13: 978-0684832463

Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America by MSNBC host and news columnist Christopher Matthews tells a story of personal friendship souring under political differences and career paths as these cordial political colleagues both opposed what they saw as Yalta’s squandered victory after World War II and fought Communist insurgency and infiltration domestically and internationally. Matthews meticulous research and breezy storytelling style creates a psychological/historical drama mixed with Shakespearean tragedy and some hilarious, touching anecdotes as he traces their roles in the era’s major events, all played against a Cold War backdrop: tacit support for Joe McCarthy’s investigations; distrust of Alger Hiss as Nixon prosecuted him; 1952’s infamous “Checkers” speech preserving Nixon’s vice-presidential candidacy, even as President Dwight Eisenhower coldly minimizes Nixon’s accomplishments and even attempts to remove him.

As the book progresses, Matthews reveals the start of Nixon’s legendary personal distrust, hinted when vanquished Congressional opponent Helen Douglas branded him “Tricky Dick”. Here Matthews also introduces characters (Archibald Cox, Charles Colson, Larry O’Brien) who became household names less than 15 years later as henchmen for or targets of Nixon’s need to retain power. You also see the slow roots of America’s painful Vietnam involvement, and how it helped fuel Nixon's 1968 comeback victory. Through it ass Nixon battles first the ambitions, and then later the “Camelot” mythology, of John F. Kennedy. Nixon is then shadowed throughout his political life by memories of the slain president, first by brother Robert (a likely 1968 candidate before his assassination) and finally youngest brother Edward Kennedy.

The core of the book, however, is dedicated to 1960 presidential election and TV’s major role in its presentation and outcome. Matthews meticulously retells 1960 “Great Debate” and how Nixon’s TV image (which, compared to Kennedy’s carefully crafted public persona and what Nixon saw as creative counting) painfully cost him that election. But recounting private taped and untaped conversations, you sense both men’s anger and frustration against enemies foreign (Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs and the assassination of South Vietnam president Ngo Dihn Diem) and domestic (Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre and his palpable need to discredit Ted Kennedy even after the 1969 Chappaquiddick tragedy ended any hopes for his presidential run).

Matthews effectively argues Ted Kennedy’s threat as fueling Nixon’s self-destruction, but adds that Nixon’s suspicions were justified. From being used by Kennedy’s wealthy father as pawn for President-elect Kennedy before the inauguration, to investigated for loans given Nixon’s brother Donald (for “Nixonburgers”), to Ted Kennedy’s role in prosecuting Watergate, Nixon felt constantly chased by Kennedy legacy and perceptions he only held space until another Kennedy “Restoration” and couldn’t compete with Kennedy’s carefully written legacy. This leads to several bitter but even hilarious anecdotes (the ones about the phony train conductor, the pregnant woman, and the beach photo opportunity being three favorites).

Even in Nixon’s declining, post-retirement years, his foreign policy expertise was respected and sought after by occupants of the Oval Office of both parties, and in more recent years his presidency has been re-examined. All-in-all, one cannot help but sympathize with self-made Nixon who does nothing to besmirch the political fortunes of his Presidential rival, whereas the rich kid Kennedy engages is a whole array of ruthless buyouts, cheap tricks and petty jabs to secure his ill-gotten throne and destroy his old nemesis. An excellent good book for a serious reader interested in the history of this nation and the art of statecraft.

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