Political scientists often misun- derstand world events and their broader contexts because they are process-driven in their analysis and understanding. Understanding process- es and rules and the structure of politi- cal parties, bureaucracies and legislatures is helpful but often periph- eral to the real dynamic of events and the role of personality and psychology in actual outcomes. Genuine historians who are able to connect the personali- ties of leaders, the personal pathologies those personalities and histories embrace and the collective impact of both on the broader context of a time and political frame are far more power- ful agents of understanding.

Which is why Conrad Black’s new and exhaustive biography of Richard Nixon is so powerful a lighthouse for the rocky shoals and coasts of America’s sojourn through the Cold War, Vietnam, the Middle East, China and the lead-up to glasnost and perestroika. In fact, there are few lives more brightly reflective of America and the world it helped shape in those times than Richard Nixon’s, and no biography that comes close to capturing the full majesty, pathos and range of that impact the way Conrad Black’s does.

It is more than a walk through the history of one man and his times. Conrad Black’s acute intellectual capac- ity to weave personality and events, both causal and symptomatic, together with forces and political dynamics both at home and abroad, and to link both of these categories of analysis to the devel- opment of trends and accumulated wisdoms provides the reader with a unique oscillating vantage point that is both street-level and coal-face while being detached and coolly analytical.

This is not just a book for history buffs, political junkies or aficionados of American history; it is more of a geopo- litical scan of a time and age shaped by the range and limitations, intellect and emotions of the Nixonian mindset, the ensuing worldview and the interperson- al dynamics shaped by both. And all of this is accomplished without Black giv- ing up one iota of the dispassionate analysis and criticism, when necessary, that we have every right to expect of a biographer and historian whose pres- ence as an author is to provide some added value previously unavailable but for his effort and analysis. Black, as has been the case with so many other parts of his literary and professional life, over- achieves quite admirably.

The Invincible Quest is rich in more than painstaking research and relevant detail. Black’s approach, as was the case with his works on Roosevelt and Duplessis, embraces the broad reach of relationships that spawn the political persona to begin with, shape and are shaped by that persona’s progress through different stages of life and polit- ical struggle, and then become the long web of networks and clout through which political power is sought, gained, sustained, advanced, broadened, wielded and ultimately lost. This work is com- pelling not only for the factual detail and scrupulous coverage of the interlocking brickwork of various sequential and simultaneous events, but for the piercing examples of how multi-dimensional Nixon was, how his anti-Communist political beginnings were in no way pre- dictive of the remarkable strides he made toward a more peaceful and balanced world, more devoid of thermo-nuclear destructive threat than when he found it as a young and ambitious legislative member of the Committee on Un- American Activities in the 1950s.

His humble origins are contrasted throughout the book with the frequent and usually unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, coming often from the wealthy (by inheritance as opposed to through one’s own hard work) scions of northeast US liberalism. The intensity of his cool courage in the face of personal danger, as on his famous South American trip as Eisenhower’s vice-president, is told with an attention to detail, atmospherics and interpersonal interaction between Nixon and his security details, foreign ministers from local governments and his own Washington linkages in a way that allows Black to produce insights not only as to Nixon the human being, but as to the world as it existed at that point in his early political career. Surely, there is no greater historical achievement than the interweaving of these disparate ele- ments to inspire new insights and under- standing far greater and deeper than existed before this book was published.

And while 1,151 pages, including acknowledgments, bibliography and index, is no small tome, it would be a mistake for putative readers to be intimidated by the book’s heft. It is very much to Black’s credit that despite his own verbal and intellectual propensi- ties, he has written a broadly accessible and human book that will interest a very broad range of potential readers. There is enough in this book, as to both tone and historical sweep, not to mention family, interpersonal and political and emotional detail, to interest a very wide range of readers beyond the purely historically or politically minded. The psychology of Richard Nixon is a driving force; the nature of his relationship with his wife, Pat, is a critical dimension; the role of his moth- er and the Quaker roots that shaped Nixon’s hardscrabble beginnings all leverage one’s understanding of the par- ticular shape and velocity of Nixon’s life force and will to succeed and serve. But for those who relish Black’s mas- terful use of the English language, there is much to inspire and enjoy.

On every issue, from Watergate to China, Vietnam to Kent State, Cambodia to Israel, this is the quality and richness of Black’s work. It is truly monu- mental. As are the insights about rela- tionships, with Kissinger, with Chinese leadership, within the White House, within the congressional precincts. Black’s sympathetic treatment of Nixon’s successes and clear manifestations of both policy and physical courage do not contaminate his analysis of where Nixon made errors of judgment and substance. Black is tough where the facts argue for no other possible option, but in his rigor- ous assessments, he leaves no human or circumstantial factor of importance unaddressed. It is that attention to detail which gives this biographical history its essential balance and integrity.

In summing up his chapter dealing with Nixon’s second successful campaign and being at the pinnacle of power, Black engages in this portentous reflection:

He was personally a sensitive and often generous man, and he under- stood the loyalty of the White House staff. But his somber and morose nature took possession of him, especially when it would have seemed he had a right and reason to celebrate. He cheered up in crises, was let down by victory, and the few things that excited him caused him childlike pleasure. His best friend was a man with whom he exchanged few words, and his love of solitude was extreme, especially for one of the most energetic and durable politicians in the country’s history. All these factors made his achievements as a public man the more remarkable. Very strange things were about to happen, but Richard Nixon was already a very considerable president and statesman.

Black’s broad sweep of the historical analysis, the many lessons from Nixon and Kissinger’s remarkable collaboration on international affairs, the translation of war into the sinews of peace, join the prescient analysis of the hypocrisy inherent in so much of the congression- al-white House relationship. This is added to the self-righteous preening of various key media voices to form an illu- minating interwoven network of facts, historical insight geopolitical analysis to make more remarkable still the sheer measurement of how a strong personal- ity can change the shape and direction of history, even in a democratic compe- tition as intense and demanding as that found in America. The ultimate tribute to Nixon is the clear enumeration of the forces against which he prevailed for so long. Black’s diligent and glistening achievement is the portrayal of not only those forces and Nixon’s strength, which broadens the very meaning of struggle, but his equally rigorous tabula- tion and textured understanding of the weaknesses that worked away at Nixon’s struggle from inside.

This is more than a compelling, multi-faceted and well written histori- cal biography, and more than Black’s best work yet. It is a graduate course in US diplomatic and political history from the beginning of the Cold War to the cusp of Soviet realism and the full constructive impact of détente. There is much one can learn about today’s Middle East, today’s Russian Federation, today’s Southeast Asia, today’s Sino-American dynamic and today’s Republican struggle from the pages of this effort.

I remember as a teenager how uncomfortable I was with the Kennedy mystique, based as it was on what Black refers to as the Camelot canard, and what even in the early 1960s was understood to be a stolen American election based on Democratic skuldug- gery in Cook County, Illinois. The reckless confrontation of the USSR over Cuba by Kennedy, bringing the world to the brink of thermonuclear destruction, and the disastrous Bay of Pigs adventurism of the early Kennedy months (all of which were deeply problematic for the Diefenbaker Conservative administration in Canada) all spoke volumes as to why this young Conservative preferred Nixon in both substance and style.

What Black’s outstanding analysis adds to what most reasonably engaged observers of history might otherwise know is overwhelming. In insight, scope, judgment and rigour, this is a book that traces the progress of one historically remarkable American with- in a geopolitical maze of intense com- plexity. It is a book not to be missed.

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