Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie
("A Novelist Imagines a Life")
"You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore," Richard Nixon famously said at one point during his long political career. Little did he know that his critics would still be savaging him-- and his wife-- almost 40 years after he left office. Little did Richard Nixon allow for Ms. Beattie.
There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to adequately describe Ms. Beattie's book, but I'll try.
"Cruel," "bizarre," "obsessive," "regrettable," "embarrassing," "snide," "shallow," "hatchet job," "sneering," "smug," "superior," "scornful," "contemptuous," "sheer petty meanness," "40 year-old grievances," "insufferably condescending," "literary stalking," "third-rate insights of a high-schooler," "the most superficial of superficial writing," "272 pages of thinly-disguised hatred," "a terrible idea for a terrible book."
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Half of the book is Ms. Beattie trying to explain why she's writing about Mrs. Nixon. She never does explain. She's incapable of explaining.
"She may well have been unknowable even by her family," Ms. Beattie tells us.
Ms. Beattie does nothing to find out, to get behind the surface of Pat Nixon. Her sources, like Joe McGinniss, Jonathan Schell, and Albert Goldman, aren't exactly objective or reliable. Other than a stray quote or two used to show Pat Nixon in the worst possible light, Ms. Beattie doesn't dig up the perspectives of those who actually knew the former First Lady. Certainly not anyone who'd be sympathetic to her. Her family loved her. Her daughters turned out fine. There might be more to the story.
Ms. Beattie spends her entire 272 pages dealing with her constructed stereotype of Mrs. Nixon, a personality as one-dimensional as Ms. Beattie's Nixon paper dolls, the weirdest moment in a weird book.
Ms. Beattie tells us nothing about Mrs. Nixon not already known or believed, and which could've been encapsulated in a page, if not a paragraph. But Ms. Beattie does tell us a lot about Ms. Beattie.
The first question is, Why did Ms. Beattie write this book? A floundering writing career? A need to settle ideological scores from 40 years ago? Nothing else to write about?
There's not a hint of objectivity from Ms. Beattie. For instance, she contrasts John F. Kennedy, Camelot's golden knight, the attractively glowing icon of virtue, against scowling jowly dark-bearded bad guy Dick Nixon, embodiment of evil. Can we admit this is a stereotype? One that stems most from the legendary 1960 debate between the two men.
There's much to like about the JFK myth-- every nation requires myths-- but a writer of Ms. Beattie's reputation should be able to give us something more than the most superficial of contrasts. In actuality, Kennedy and Nixon were more alike than they were different. Both had great talents and enormous weaknesses. Both could be opportunistic and devious. Both engaged in actions that were dangerous and corrupt. Their ideologies were remarkably similar. (Lukewarm liberalism; intense anti-Communism.) They were creatures of the political system, and the milieus from which they sprung. Complex individuals. Curiously, or not, JFK and RN were also fairly good friends.
Ms. Beattie's view of the two men reveals to us how she views the world. The need for the appearance of virtue, for affirmation that her affluent class of well-bred liberals are virtuous. They need evildoers in order to accomplish this, someone to act as grimy backdrop so They, the Clean and the Saved, can gleam with virtuous light.
Much of the outsized hatred of Richard Nixon by the affluent Liberal class was caused not by what he did, but by what he was-- those aspects of his personality and background he was unable to hide. Awkward, striving, square, sweaty, transparent, social climber, nakedly ambitious-- the classic example of the self-made person who doesn't belong.
Ms. Beattie remains captive of the snobberies of high school. (Or prep school, whichever it was.) Ms. Beattie grew up in chic circles and has moved her entire life in chic circles. For such people, Image and Manners are All. Mr. and Mrs. Nixon lacked the superficial qualities which Ms. Beattie most values-- and which Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy, by contrast, had by the truckload.
A sadder tragedy about Ms. Beattie is what's revealed about Ms. Beattie the writer. She intersperses the thin narrative with her opinions and advice about writing-- what she no doubt inflicts upon her captive writing students. Her perspective makes her appear stuck in a time warp. Most of the names she drops, such as Raymond Carver, were big literary names at the same time Ms. Beattie was a big literary name-- 25 years ago. Not just in the subject of the book is Ann Beattie a living and breathing anachronism.
PUBLISHER: Scribners (a once-great company)
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas
BLITZ RATING: 3.0