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Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image Hardcover – October 6, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
In this aptly named study, Greenberg, a Bancroft Prize winner who also collaborated with Bob Woodward on The Agenda, sedulously avoids value judgments about the effectiveness of Richard Nixon's policies, offering instead a kaleidoscopic view of the man's many images: as Tricky Dick, as conspirator, as victim, as statesman, among others. Borrowing Woodward's device of calibrating his subjects through the eyes of others, Greenberg presents the opinions of Nixon loyalists, Nixon haters, pundits from the left and right, mainstream historians, revisionist historians, psychobiographers, the Washington press corps and members of the foreign policy establishment. According to Greenberg, this retrospective shows Nixon to have been the first postmodern president, the first whose image was purposefully manipulated for political reasons and without regard to accomplishments. The author also argues that the key to understanding Nixon is not in "discarding the many images of him... but [in] gathering and assembling them into a strange, irregular, mosaic." But with an impressive number of viewpoints sampled, hundreds of sources quoted and even TV shows Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live plumbed for Nixon references, readers may find the citations overwhelming. Still, for sheer drama, Nixon's career remains worthy of review, from his red-baiting 1950 Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, his involvement in the Alger Hiss perjury case and the infamous "Checkers" speech to the Khrushchev kitchen debate, his China policy and the political drama of the century, Watergate. Greenberg's thoroughly researched book, despite its faults, brightly illuminates the passionate public responses that swirled around one of the most controversial politicians of our times. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Nixon haters, Nixon apologists, and would-be Nixon explainers here receive in Greenberg what has long been needed: an impartial umpire. This is not a biography; instead, Greenberg analyzes what biographers, journalists, historians, and artists have to say about the deeds, dastardly and otherwise, of Richard Milhous Nixon. Greenberg unpacks this commentary the old-fashioned way, by arraigning a writer's assumptions and biases. He parallels this with smart analysis of Nixon's career-long efforts to shape his own image--to his critics the surest evidence of Tricky Dick's unprincipled phoniness, but to Greenberg a case study in a politician's spin-control. Working off the superheated rhetoric produced by Vietnam, radical protest, and Watergate, Greenberg's appraisals produce much discernment and subtle bemusement at Nixon's ever-malleable reputation. There will always be a New Nixon, it seems, whether it's Nixon the crypto-liberal (to historian Joan Hoff); Nixon the epitome of a corrupt, imperial system (to the New Left); or Nixon, "one of us" (to journalist Tom Wicker). An impressively balanced work. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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And this points to another shortcoming of Greenberg's book: His failure to take into account that both Nixon and the media are or were embedded in a "system" and that those who control it seek to perpetuate it. In politics, this means maintaining the status quo, which both Nixon and the media, as sharing control of this "system," wanted to maintain. Hence. as the prevailing political class was under severe pressure in 1967 and 1968, was threatened with being "overthrown," it was incumbent on them to look to someone who would be able to maintain the status quo, someone able to protect the prevailing political order. LBJ was no longer able to do that, so he declined to seek re-election, hoping that Nixon would be elected insofar as he, Nixon, was not the "wimp" LBJ deemed Humphrey to be. Further, Nixon ran as "the peace candidate" even though he had no plan, secret or otherwise, to get peace. But by running as "the peace candidate," Nixon, following Johnson's example, co-opted "the peace movement" which embraced a kind of politics both Nixon and LBJ thought inane and dangerous, both to the nation and to them and their political class. The media went along with talk about "the new Nixon" and his "secret plan" to end the war because it served the interests of the prevailing political order, in which they were invested along with the prevailing political class.
Like another, more recent book,, "Nixonland," Greenberg's book is based on and helps to fortify the view that Richard Nixon possessed some special qualities, that is, qualities not possessed by other, more ordinary politicians. This makes for drama, even for what might be called "tragedy," as in "the tragedy of Richard Nixon, a great man with a tragic flaw." But, in fact, Richard Nixon was little more than an ambitious, manipulating human being whose viciousness and vacuousness was hidden with the help of the media and others. There is no tragedy here, just another illustration of how our politics is, for the most part, smoke and mirrors.
Nixon's Shadow can be enjoyed on so many levels. It is not a true biography of Nixon, but fans of biographies will find plenty to like here. In essence, it is a dozen biographies -- or, even better, the best parts of a dozen biographies. But it is also a history of a tumultuous period of American life; a handbook on the political tools that still are still used to shape our democracy; an analysis of the intellectual trends in modern historical scholarship; and ultimately a tribute to the power of images to shape reality.
Greenberg has an eye for the telling detail, and a prose style that is lively, witty but unobtrusive. His story-telling advances but never interferes with the story. In Nixon's Shadow, those gifts are brought to bear on one of the 20th Century's most interesting figures and the result is simply spectacular.