'I never quite got over Richard Nixon,'' writes Don Fulsom, a former United Press International Washington bureau chief, at the beginning of "Nixon's Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America's Most Troubled President.'' This is one of the few indisputable assertions in what is otherwise, and easily, the most virulently hateful book about the 37th president ever written - and the worst. The latter distinction is no mere by-product of the former, but earned in its own right, by virtue of the author's stunted and smarmy prose, and research that is at once highly selective and woefully sloppy.
There is no confirmed villainy or allegation of it, no unsubstantiated rumor or outright falsehood, no scrap of data damaging to Nixon, who resigned the presidency in 1974 and died two decades later, that Fulsom does not stoop to collect in this exhausting catalog. It hardly requires that one be an apologist for Nixon to be take aback by the unrelentingly negative - and often shamefully insinuative - tone of this book.
Fulsom begins by telling us that it was he, not Woodward and Bernstein, who first discovered that the Watergate burglars were working for the Nixon reelection campaign, a feat for which Fulsom never received due credit. From there we are treated, in bite-size chapters, to various Bad Nixons: Nixon the wife-beater; Nixon the racist; Nixon the homophobe, who was also Nixon the secret gay lover of longtime friend Charles "Bebe'' Rebozo; Nixon the mastermind of assassinations; Nixon the mob puppet; Nixon the Teamster puppet; Nixon the puppet of Howard Hughes; and so on.
Attempting to document all this, Fulsom selectively cites a broad array of articles, books, tapes, and documents; but none of the papers or tapes appears to have been released pursuant to his own requests, and anyone well acquainted with the massive literature of the Nixon presidency will see - there is no other word for it - the trickery at work. One tip-off is Fulsom's heavy reliance, in virtually every paragraph, on slippery phraseology that allows him to imply connections between people or to float sinister allegations without substantiating evidence: "Mob-linked,'' "Mob ties,'' "associate,'' "organized crime connections,'' "heavily involved with,'' "a number of shady financial entanglements,'' "reportedly,'' "reputedly.''
People and events parade by without definition or context. And in Fulsom's footnotes, all sources are equally valid: Seymour Hersh and Stanley Kutler = Anthony Summers = Kitty Kelley = a "psycho-historian'' who never met Nixon = the Oakland Tribune = Hollywoodnews.com. Only a handful of original interviews appear to have been conducted for this book, all with fellow reporters, one of whom provided a blurb, and all to substantiate a claim that Nixon and Rebozo once held hands.
One could go on and on. Fulsom is the only chronicler of the Nixon presidency (1969-74) to spend more time on Lee Harvey Oswald than on Dwight D. Eisenhower, the only one to traffic so unapologetically in "widespread rumors,'' and the only one to start off sentences with phrases such as "I'll bet. . .''
Even peripheral asides, such as the author's assertions that Nixon "knew [Watergate conspirator E. Howard] Hunt's background intimately,'' or that "Dean's photographic memory of events was totally confirmed'' by the release of Nixon's tapes, warrant correction. On the Watergate tapes, Nixon spoke in only the vaguest terms about Hunt and his background; the president evidenced enormous difficulty keeping the various players in the scandal, most of them a generation his junior, straight in his own mind. And Fulsom appears unaware of the Watergate special prosecutors' own judgments regarding the celebrated recall of Dean, about whom they drafted, in March 1974, a memorandum titled: "Material Discrepancies Between the Senate Select Committee Testimony of John Dean and the Tapes of Dean's Meetings With the President.''
Absent from "Nixon's Darkest Secrets'' is Nixon, the man - and the Nixon presidency. Readers will find here no nuanced consideration of a human soul, "troubled'' or otherwise (more so than Kennedy? Or Lyndon Johnson? Or Lincoln?); no diplomatic opening to China or rescue of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; no creation of the Environmental Protection Agency or desegregation of the Southern school system. Four decades after Watergate first burst into the front pages, it would appear Nixon's darkest secret was that he was nowhere near as bad as his most virulent detractors allege. No one ever is.
James Rosen, chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate,'' can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.