Fulsom's book, Nixon's Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America's Most Troubled President, comes out at the end of January. You can get a flavor using Amazon's preview feature. He begins his narrative with one of Nixon's weakest moments, his rage at Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers during wartime and his unconsummated order to aides to stage a break-in at a think tank affiliated with the former Defense Department analyst. Break-ins are wrong. But imagine what FDR would've said if someone had told him during World War II that a disaffected former War Department aide had a safe full of pilfered cables he was planning to give to the Japanese.
In his early pages, Fulsom also provides an overheated account of Nixon sending a message to South Vietnam before the 1968 election to the effect that it could get a better deal with North Vietnam under a Nixon administration. As stinky as that sounds, in politics there's usually something just as noxious bubbling in the other kitchen. If there's anything more outrageous than a presidential candidate playing politics with war, it's when a commander-in-chief does it. The weekend before the election, President Johnson ordered a bombing halt and intimated that a peace agreement was at hand, giving Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's vice president, a desperately needed if unavailing boost. In this 1991 letter to the New York Times, Johnson administration official William P. Bundy takes a similar tack, though in more moderate language, focusing on Nixon's perfidy but doing nothing to allay suspicions that Johnson was trying to help Humphrey. This William Safire column, to which Bundy was replying, argues persuasively that Johnson was colluding with Moscow to try to defeat Nixon.
Fulsom says Nixon "erroneously" thought that Johnson's move was political and leaves the momentous question at that. By ignoring the ambiguities surrounding October-November 1968, Fulsom signals that his is a get-Nixon project not unlike Anthony Summers' 2000 book The Arrogance of Power. Indeed Fulsom, according to an Amazon search of his text, cites or mentions Summers nearly 50 times, which is a lot for an author the Washington Post accused of "slipshod use of evidence." For instance, Summers preposterously accused Nixon of self-medicating with an anti-inflammatory medication, Dilantin, which was obsessively promoted as a cure-all by a political friend.
Far more outrageously, Summers said Nixon beat his beloved wife of 53 years. Is Summers the principal source for Fulsom's wife-beating charges? Here's what the Daily Mail says about the new book:
[Fulsom] claims Nixon's relationship with Pat...was little more than a sham. A heavy drinker whom his own staff dubbed 'Our Drunk', Nixon used to call his First Lady a 'f***ing bitch' and beat her before, during and after his presidency, says Fulsom.No one close to Nixon has ever said or intimated that they saw or heard anything remotely like this. Summers' principal source was a former uniformed Secret Service agent who would rarely if ever have been in the White House family quarters. I learned about him after one of Nixon's former pilots overheard the man bragging in a bar about his coming star turn with a British TV crew that was promoting the Summers book. The man's allegations were probably known to Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, who had a family connection with the source, and Pulitzer Prize winner (and thoroughgoing Nixon critic) Seymour Hersh. Neither reporter published the charge. Hersh mentioned it at a Harvard seminar in 1998, claiming he had seen hospital records that proved Mr. Nixon had harmed Mrs. Nixon. Hersh didn't adequately explain why he'd chosen not to publish what he says he knew. His somewhat weaselly move seems to have helped Summers find the source and get his story into print at long last. Lacking Woodward and Hersh's reticence about the source's bona fides, Summers made alleged Nixonian battering a centerpiece of Arrogance of Power.
There's a reason "When did you stop beating your wife?" is often presented as the definitive no-win scenario. You've lost the argument the moment it's asked. Now we have two books published 11 years apart, with attendant media coverage, alleging monstrous behavior by a U.S. president with no real evidence. Like most that last over a half-century, the Nixon' marriage was sometimes complicated. It probably wasn't easy to be married to politics' greatest introvert. But theirs was a richly nuanced partnership based on love and profound mutual respect. Hundreds of family members, associates, and aides would agree, as would anyone who saw Nixon break down, for the first time ever in public, at Mrs. Nixon's June 1993 funeral in Yorba Linda.
Who disputes that portrait of the Nixons' relationship? So far as we know, no one except bottom-feeding sources used for ammunition by character assassins. We'll have to wait until January to see if Fulsom has found evidence of his own or just recyles Summers' tales. My guess is that if the hospital records Hersh mentions existed, we'd have seen them by now. As I recall, at least one of the incidents is said to have occurred after Nixon's 1974 resignation. The San Clemente hospital is in the phone book. Calling all real reporters!
Summers also labored hard though unsuccessfully to prove that organized crime was behind Nixon's early political success. I don't know what to think about Fulsom's allegations that Rebozo was connected. Getting more attention today is Fulsom's claim that Nixon and Rebozo were connected. Not true -- take it from me, his former chief of staff, executor, and library director, and from Kathy O'Connor, his last chief of staff. We were around him for tens of thousands of hours, and the gaydar registered zero. The needle never flickered. Nixon was heterosexual. He loved smart, attractive women, flirted with them keenly if ineptly, and had no sexual energy whatsoever with men.
Being gay, of course, isn't a scandal. What gives Fulsom's allegations their heft is the automatically accompanying allegation that Nixon, being a Republican, was homophobic. The news is the hypocrisy rather than the homosexuality. But even here, the case is thin. In the 1960s, the Daily Mail reports, he said a prominent gay man was "ill." Appalling as that sounds today, it was the same position taken until 1973 by the American Psychiatric Assn. Nixon's views on homosexuality were relatively mainstream. In the spring of 2009, when a White House tape featuring Nixon and two of his equally square advisers was making the rounds, I wrote:
The three men exhibited assumptions and anxieties about homosexuality -- I understand why they get up to that, but it shouldn't be glorified -- that were typical of their generation. The President, for instance, had been born in 1913. I'm surprised how few commentators and bloggers have pointed out that the chat occurred 38 years ago, just as gay liberation was picking up steam. George Carlin and Monty Python were still getting laughs with routines based on the same cultural stereotypes being indulged in the White House. By the same token, on another occasion President Nixon predicted that we'd have gay marriage by 2000, making him more progressive than the majority of California voters in 2008.Secretly gay legislators who vote against gay rights and and closeted evangelicals who preach against them are fair game for the hypocrisy argument. Nixon isn't, because he wasn't gay, wasn't, therefore, a hypocrite, and in any event wasn't especially bigoted compared to men of his era.
That leaves Rebozo. When Kathy and I knew him in the 1980s and 1990s, Nixon told endless gags about his premarital conquests. We visited him at his home in Key Biscayne, where he shared a bedroom with his gracious wife, Jane. She cared for him devotedly after he suffered a stroke in the mid-1990s. Beyond that, his sex life was no one's business but his own. Innuendo and gossip from Summers, Fulsom, and the Daily Mail aside, the Nixons had a loving marriage, and Nixon and Rebozo had a strong, affectionate friendship that lasted 40 years. Maybe someone's suggesting that if two men care for each other, they must be gay. Who's homophobic then?