Christopher Matthews has written a very interesting tome on the rivalry between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. One reader wrote Interesting book that more appropriately should have been titled “Nixon’s Pathological Obsession with All Things Kennedy.” in his review on Goodreads and I tend to agree with that. I found myself looking forward to my daily read in this book (I read it at lunchtime) until John Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Then the book descended into a psych-eval of Richard Nixon—not a very objective psych-eval either. This book may have been written before Matthews flew off the rails into far left wing punditry1, but his bias toward all things Kennedy is apparent throughout the book, especially after Kennedy leaves the stage and Nixon is alone, lost in soliloquy hell.
Even so, I learned more about the relationship between these two men than I have in any other book. Who knew that Kennedy once contributed to Nixon’s campaign for Senate? Who knew that they were friends (or at least friendly) until 1960? Who knew that Nixon, once in office, invited Jackie and her children for a private dinner at the White House?
The book is not a dual biography, though there are elements of that, especially in the beginning. Their careers in the Navy, the House and the Senate are chronicled, but the book really becomes interesting when both men run for president in 1960.
Though Matthews’ favoritism toward Kennedy is evident, both men were capable leaders and I believe that history will be kind to both. Kennedy has been rated in the upper tiers of presidential rankings and I believe, that once some time has passed and Nixon’s accomplishments are view objectively, his star will also rise. We’re already seeing evidence of that.
One does not need to dig very deeply into Kennedy to realize that he would not recognize the Democratic party of today and would probably be more comfortable as a Republican. Kennedy disdained the “liberal elite” that began when Franklin Roosevelt was president. Kennedy wrote about Roosevelt’s New Deal:
Mr. Roosevelt has contributed to the end of capitalism in our own country, although he would probably argue the point at some length. He has done this, not through the laws which he sponsored or were passed during his presidency, but brough the emphasis he put on rights rather than responsibility. (p. 40)
Kennedy called citizens to responsibility in his now famous “ask not what your country and do for you, but ask what you can do for your country” mantra in his inaugural address—he would be appalled with the welfare and entitlement programs of today.
The Kennedy of this book, in other words, is vastly different from the Kennedy of today’s popular culture, where every liberal candidate for political office wants to co-op his image, glamour and heritage. But, that Kennedy does exist. Kennedy described himself as a progressive conservative.
Matthews’ treatment of Nixon is even-handed, in my opinion, until he becomes president. Then Matthews turns his attention on the psych-eval of Richard Nixon and it gets ugly—most of what Matthews says is probably true, but the truth can be ugly.
Nixon was the obvious choice for president for the Republicans in 1968. There was no one of his stature within the party. Nixon, ever the astute politician, knew the presidency was pretty much his for the asking…until. Until Bobby Kennedy announced his bid for the presidency—in the same room and with the exact same words as John had used in 1960. Nixon’s nightmare was coming true: another election between himself and a Kennedy. In Nixon’s eye, everything came easy for the Kennedys and he would lose. Of course, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy changed everything and Nixon squeaked out a victory again Hubert Humphrey. The election of 1972 wasn’t even close as Nixon coasted to victory.
Where Matthews loses credibility with me is his fascination and pre-occupation with Nixon’s paranoia over a presidential run by Ted Kennedy. According to Matthews, Nixon saw the Chappaquiddick incident as his release from the specter of another Kennedy beating him for president.
In the end, Nixon’s paranoia was his undoing. Nixon would have won in 1972, even if Ted Kennedy had been the candidate. But he allowed his low self-esteem and paranoia to torpedo his presidency.
Ironically, in his farewell address as president Nixon said, “Always remember, other may hate you—but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself”—Nixon’s hatred and preoccupation with his enemies (Kennedys and others) destroyed him.
Nixon would live until 1994 and became somewhat a shadow-elder statesman, being called upon by his successors for advice, especially in foreign affairs. Bill Clinton, in particular, relied on Nixon.
Today, the Kennedy Center and the Watergate sit beside each other along the Potomac—like unmatched bookends. –Christopher Matthews
1 from a review on Goodreads by TJ Tunnington