Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Book Review: Kennedy and Nixon by Chris Matthews

And now for something a little different. I hold a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in history. It is a passion of mine, as evidenced by my first novel, the historical mystery Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery. Every summer, I like to dig into a book of history, usually a biography. Back in 2003, it was Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, the story of Lyndon Johnson’s Senate years. Before that, in 2001, I read David McCullough’s Truman. In other years, it was Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers and McCullough’s John Adams and 1776. I recommend all of them highly.

With the publication of Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, Nixon was on my mind. Since it is not yet available in audio, I came around to Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Post-War America by Chris Matthews. Yes, he is the same guy from MSNBC that hosts Hardball and is caricatured on SNL.

Historians sometimes like to propose a theory and then find facts that support only that theory. One could argue that Matthews did that here. It is interesting, however, to view post-war American history through only one lens. Sure, other facts are removed and only a simplified perspective emerges but that doesn’t mean the facts are wrong.

I found many of Matthews anecdotes interesting and, frankly, learned a few things. I knew that Nixon and Kennedy both came to Congress in the same year, 1947. They landed on the same committee in the House, a mixed-up pair that had many of the same ideas, outlooks, and ambitions. They both saw communism as the global threat it was back in the early days of the Cold War. They conversed in each other’s offices, as they were across the hall from each other, even when Nixon was VP and Kennedy in the Senate. During Nixon’s 1950 run for the U. S. Senate, JFK hand delivered a check from Joe Kennedy, Sr., an incident JFK denied in his 1960 presidential race.

So wrapped up in their intertwined stories that the 1960 presidential race that pitted the two men against each seemed almost destined by fate. Two friends, two allies, fighting for the same chair. Matthews describes the presidential debates of 1960 in fine detail. What I failed to realize was that there were four debates that year but it is the first that everyone remembers. A sad fact that emerges in the 1960 race was the friendship that died. JFK was first to brush off Nixon’s friendship and it was Nixon who followed suit, years later. Ironically, during that first debate, Nixon was reticent to attack JFK, even being couched not to do so. This from the man who, in 1946 and 1950, unleashed some underhanded tactics of his own. The third debate was unique in format. Nixon was on the west coast, JFK on the east, both men sitting in a television studio, not even able to see the other man. I can’t help but wonder how that even made it off the ground. But, in 1960, presidential debates were something new. So devastating were the effects of that first debate (Nixon ‘won’ the other three), seen by an estimated 9 our of 10 households that owned a television, that it was sixteen years before another presidential debate occurred. LBJ, in 1964, learned the lesson of Nixon’s failings in 1960s and, you know, in 1968 and 1972, Nixon would never debate. (For a nice overview of presidential debates, go to the website "The Great Debate and Beyond: The History of Televised Presidential Debates" with photos and footage.)

As the story progresses, irony begins to emerge. The way Matthews presents this history, it’s somewhat difficult to see how the Nixon hatred emerged. Sure, Matthews takes pains to note Nixonian tactics in 1946 and 1950 as paving the way for Nixon vitriol from the press as well as the man’s own animosity right back at them that crystallized in his having to give the 1952 “Checkers” speech. But this hostility seems just seems to emerge. It’s certainly a cause for further research. Moreover, it was amusing to read about the college-prank-like tricks played on Nixon by various Democratic operatives. One involved a guy who managed to join Nixon’s team and sabotaged a Nixon speaking engagement at a local California college. The operative managed to reserve a huge room but invited no one. The pictures made many laugh, including JFK back in Washington.

And it’s true that JFK employed similar shenanigans, mainly involving his father’s money. But, once both JFK and Nixon became president and had the power of the Oval Office behind them, pranks become something more. Both men welded that power but Nixon was the one who took it over the top and got caught. JFK, LBJ, and Nixon all had tapes recording conversations in the White House. And, I assume, every president since has had some way of recording the day-to-day activities of their administration. It’s great for historians but somewhat damning for the occupants for they and their operatives cannot gloss over cold hard facts.

I listened to the audio version of this book, read by Nelson Runger. Runger is one of the best readers of non-fiction out there. In an amusing way to enliven the recording, Runger affects a Kennedy or Nixon accent whenever Matthews quoted directly from either man. It’s not distracting and, actually, helped the reading. It was interesting, however, to see how the Massachusetts accent changed from John to Robert to Edward Kennedy. Runger also read John Adams as well as Founding Brothers. His rich voice really brings these historical figures to life. Runger is to the point now where I’ll listen to almost anything he reads.

Many academics lambaste works like Matthews book as popular history. Some even criticize him for using only one frame of reference and throwing out extraneous details that don’t conform to the set frame. These would be the academics who write impenetrable books that only other academics read and review. The American populace has, in many ways, lost its sense of history. Too many gym teachers who ‘teach’ history as merely a series of dates have driven the life from history and truly made it the boring story of dead people. Popular histories like Kennedy and Nixon strive to bring these dead people alive again for a new generation of readers. True, the book reads like a novel but aren’t some of the best stories ever told those accounts of real-life heroes? If it takes a popular work of non-fiction like Kennedy and Nixon or an HBO miniseries on John Adams to get people to learn about history, so be it. At least history and the spirit of those that came before will emerge—the good and the bad, the triumphs and the mistakes—and, hopefully, say something to future generations.

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