Call it coincidence, serendipity, an aligning of the planets—whatever the term, the moment was creepy and amusing all at once. I was beavering away in the basement research room at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in Yorba Linda, a suburb of Los Angeles, when Henry Kissinger twice came into view—in the flat, cursive form of Nixon’s scrawl in the margins of the book I was reading, and then in the rounder corporeal form of the man himself, in the hallway outside the door.
Kissinger, the last surviving member of Nixon’s Cabinet, was in Yorba Linda last fall for two reasons: to speak at a fundraising gala for the Richard Nixon Foundation and to promote a book he had published earlier in the year, at the improbable age of 99. The book, Leadership, contains an entire chapter in praise of Nixon, the man who had made Kissinger the 20th century’s only celebrity diplomat.
I was there to gather material for a Nixon book of my own. I had been nosing around in a cache of volumes from Nixon’s personal library. I was particularly interested in any marks he may have left in the books he’d owned. From what I could tell, no one had yet mined this remarkably varied collection, more than 2,000 books filling roughly 160 boxes stored in a vault beneath the presidential museum. Taken together, they reflect the broad range of Nixon’s intellectual curiosity—an underappreciated quality of his highly active mind. To give an idea: One heavily underlined book in the collection is a lengthy biography of Tolstoy; another is a book on statesmanship by Charles de Gaulle; another is a deep dive into the historiography of Japanese art. Several fat volumes of The Story of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant’s mid-century monument to middlebrow history, display evidence of attentive reading and rereading.
Every morning a friendly factotum would wheel out a gray metal cart stacked with dusty boxes from Nixon’s personal library. On the afternoon Kissinger arrived, I had worked my way down to an obscure book published in 1984, a decade after Nixon left the White House. A significant portion of Bad News: The Foreign Policy of The New York Times, by a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily News named Russ Braley, is a blistering indictment of the Times’ coverage of the Nixon administration. In Braley’s telling, the Times’ treatment swung between the unfair and the uncomprehending, for reasons ranging from negligence to malice.
The book had found its ideal reader in Richard Nixon. The pages of his copy were cluttered with underlining from his thick ballpoint pen. It occurred to me, as I followed along, that Nixon was being brought up short by his reading: Much of the material in Bad News was apparently news to him.
My reading was interrupted by a commotion outside the research room. I stuck my head out in time to see Kissinger and his entourage settling into the room across the hall. A group of donors and Nixonophiles had gathered to hear heroic tales of Nixon’s statecraft.
I dutifully returned to Braley. When I got to a chapter on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, I found an unmistakable pattern: Most of Nixon’s markings involved the man holding court across the hall. And Nixon wasn’t happy with him.
Read the rest here.