Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 2, 1994

Nixon: A Life, by Jonathan Aitken. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1993. xiv+633 pp. $28.00.

History’s judgment of presidents is slow in the making, and it frequently varies from the way presidents are perceived by their contemporaries. Not until personalities, media treatment, and popular emotions have faded from memory can the significance of their tenures be seen in perspective; and the perspective, moreover, is apt to be influenced by history yet to come. Thus it is, for example, that Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, though rated poorly during their lifetimes, came to be regarded as great and Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, though highly esteemed when in office, are now seen as inept failures.

The most controversial president of the twentieth century has been Richard Nixon, but it is too soon to know what history’s verdict on him will be. Probably another generation or two will have to pass before passions have adequately cooled. When he left office in utter disgrace in 1974, almost no one would have predicted that he would ever be ranked higher than dead last. And yet, though confirmed Nixon haters will go to their graves hating him, the generally favorable comments upon the occasion of his funeral suggest that his star may rise again…

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