A couple of weeks ago someone on my Twitter timeline was tweeting passages from One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner. It looked pretty good so I snagged a copy.
Damn, y’all. This book was a hard slog. It took me forever to read it. I can generally power through a book in a day, two days, tops. This one took two weeks. Not because it was bad, mind you, but because every other page I stopped and threw my hands up, yelling, “JFC, how can these people be so stupid?! Jim – Jim! Listen to this!”
I think Jim’s already heard half the book just from me hate-reading it out loud in outrage.
I’m just gonna admit upfront that my grasp of history is pretty spotty. If we played a WoD campaign in a particular era my knowledge is better than average, but since no one in our gaming group ever set a campaign in the early 70’s, I don’t know much more about it than what’s in popular culture. So much of this book was a revelation for me. It’s one thing to be like, “The Vietnam war was bad,” and a whole ‘nother thing to have someone grab the back of your head and rub your nose in it.
Similarly, my knowledge of Richard Nixon was basically that he was a liar who got impeached, and whatever I picked up from reading All The President’s Men.
That’s probably also why this book took so long to read. I kept having to stop and look stuff up. “What? You’re kidding.” *wikis* “Jesus Christ. How were most of these people only in jail for two years?”
(Side note: I do most of my reading on my computer on the Kindle app, which comes in super handy for books like these where you need to keep hitting Wikipedia so you know what’s going on.)
The book suffered somewhat from the author repeatedly insisting that Nixon was a great man and/or president, although it’s a little hard to tell if Weiner thought Nixon was a great man/president or if he was just going along with what Nixon thought about himself. Either way, it’s pretty jarring to read several pages about the ruthless, lunatic bombing of various Vietnam-related countries and then read that Nixon was a political mastermind or some kind of strategic genius.
Nothing in this book supports the idea that Nixon was a political mastermind or a strategic genius, either, by the way. The book does a wonderful job of supporting the idea that Nixon was a paranoid maniac with delusions of grandeur, an idiot drunk, a racist, and probably suffering from depression, anxiety, and/or some kind of bipolar issue. Two takeaways from this book: Nixon was dumb as a bag of hammers and drunk like 80% of the time.
For example, there are vast swaths of the book devoted to Nixon the Mad Bomber. Nixon bombed the ever-loving hell out of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and came within a squeak of dropping nukes over there on several occasions. And much of the book is devoted to Nixon ranting and raving about how much more he was going to bomb the area and how, finally, that would end the Vietnam War.
This guy bombed three or four countries flat for four solid years and accomplished exactly nothing, and yet every time, his answer to Vietnam is “MOAR BOMBS.” Dude. Bombs are clearly not the answer here. You know this because have dropped all of the damn bombs, and the problem is now worse.
Nixon’s other solution to the Vietnam War appears to have been to send Kissinger sneaking around to chat with every dictator he could find who had time for tea. This also – quelle surprise! – accomplished exactly nothing.
There’s a great story in the middle of the book that basically tells you everything you need to know about Richard Nixon. Apparently, Nixon would have his guys over for dinner on a semi-regular occasion. And when I say “his guys,” I mean his inner circle crew, the men he was planning all his crimes and bombings with. His friends and political allies. At these dinners, Nixon would have himself served a fancy, high end, expensive wine, left in an ice bucket near him, with the bottle wrapped in a white napkin so you couldn’t see the label. Then, he would serve his buddies a cheapass table red, at the same time.
So here you are, Nixon’s crony, sitting at the table with Nixon, drinking what is obviously a plain table red one step up from being poured out of a cardboard box, and there’s Nixon, the guy you’re murdering thousands of people in a stupid, unwinnable war and subverting the basic tenets of democracy for, drinking expensive-assed French wine and pretending like you can’t tell because he wrapped a napkin around it.
This is the petty asshole people went to prison for.
I spent much of this book appalled and infuriated, so I guess that makes it a pretty great read. If you’re a fan of history or just looking to improve on what you know about Nixon from Futurama, then definitely pick this book up. It’ll piss you off, but it’s also fascinating.