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The Nixon sensationalism: A failure of accountability

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The latest sensationalism about Richard Nixon demonstrates what's best and what's worst about big-time New York book publishing. Authors and publishers should -- must -- be held accountable for published works. There's a simple standard: Just say no to sensationalism and the hype that emphasizes the sensational over the substantive.

The book in this case is "The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon"(640 pages, $29.95). The author is Irish investigative reporter Anthony Summers. The big New York City publisher is Viking, an imprint of Penguin Putnam Inc.

First, how does the book represent what's best about big-time publishing? As with Summers' massive earlier books about J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe and the John F. Kennedy assassination, "The Arrogance of Power" demonstrates that the author spends long hours over many years traveling paper trails and people trails as he seeks to understand his subject. For all their flaws, Summers' books have value. Hooray for the publishers like Viking that pay authors enough in advance so that kind of research is possible to conduct.

In many ways, "The Arrogance of Power" is the best one-volume, full-life biography of Nixon ever published. The storyline hangs together well, the writing is capable, the explanation for doing yet another Nixon book (Summers' bibliography lists 51 previous biographies, plus dozens more about his presidential years) is acceptable.

So, how is the book representative of what's worst in New York publishing -- the sensationalisitic parts, and the hyping of them?

To casual readers, the sensationalism might not always stand out. Summers (assisted by his journalist-wife Robbyn Swan as well as hired researchers) gives even the most precarious evidence the patina of credibility through copious endnotes. "The Arrogance of Power" contains 116 pages of endnotes, set in type so tiny that the page count really ought to be much higher. How many readers will spend much (if any) time matching the information in the text to the sourcing in the endnotes? Not many.

But looking at the book's sourcing, especially the sourcing for some of its "gotcha" moments, is revelatory.

One of Summers' freshest, most sensational allegations is that during their 53-year marriage, Richard Nixon beat his wife, Pat, at least once, maybe more often.

Viking called attention to the allegation in the press release accompanying the book's publication on Aug. 28. The release says "On the night of his electoral defeat in 1962 ... Nixon's wife Pat required medical treatment following an assault by her husband." And the book is already teasing readers to the information by page xiv of the preface, where Summers writes of "touching testimonials" at Richard Nixon's funeral to the long marriage, then adds, "Other memories told a sadder story -- of prolonged marital difficulty, of physical abuse, of threatened divorce."

It's legitimate for a biographer to examine his subject's marital relations. But when the evidence is shaky, the findings ought to remain unpublished, or at least unhyped.

The detailed allegations of wife beating appear on pages 232-237. Summers writes there how research "suggests that Nixon physically attacked his wife after his loss in 1962."

In the text itself and the endnotes, here are the sources mentioned for the supposedly compelling scenario:

* A statement by Nixon rival Gov. Pat Brown "years later" that "[w]e got word at one stage of the campaign that he kicked the hell out of her, beat her." The endnotes show that the Brown statement came from the papers of long-ago Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie. How many readers will notice that? If they do notice, how many will know that among many professional biographers like myself, Brodie, while sometimes considered spottily brilliant, is frequently dismissed as an unreliable researcher and writer?

* An echo of Brown's statement by his aide Frank Cullen. Did Cullen have independent knowledge? Or did he merely listen to the hearsay from his boss? It is hard to know, based on Summers' rendition.

* A comment by journalist Bill Van Petten "years later" that sometime just before or just after Nixon's bitter public speech in defeat he "beat Pat badly ... so badly that she could not go out the next day." The phrasing suggests Van Petten might have been a witness, but a few sentences later, Summers writes: "Van Petten is dead, and his account as related here comes from a friend to whom he spoke in the early eighties." The endnote about Van Petten's information is confusing rather than enlightening. Despite several readings, I have no idea what it means.

After providing the Van Petten information, Summers writes, "the first credible corroboration of the 1962 beating allegation was provided by John Sears, a former Nixon aide who went on to political distinction." The use of the word "credible" raises an alarming question: If Sears is the first source Summers finds credible, why is he including Brown, Cullen and Van Petten as sources (indirect as they may be)?

Sears, Summers says in the text, received his information long after 1962 from Waller Taylor, the Nixon family's lawyer, and from Pat Hillings, identified as Nixon's "long-time friend and associate." Furthermore, "As Sears understood it from Taylor, the 1962 beating was not an isolated incident. Spousal abuse, indeed, is almost always repetitive." Maybe Taylor and Hillings had firsthand knowledge, maybe secondhand knowledge, maybe even less reliable information. There is no way to know from Summers' book.

In 1993, I spent weeks reading Summers' biography "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover," comparing and contrasting Summers' biography with three previous biographies of Hoover researched by scholars and journalists. Putnam is the publisher. My research resulted in a review of the books for the Washington City Paper that appeared in the March 26, 1993, issue.

Despite being last in the publishing line, Summers presented some useful new information and new interpretations of older information.

But, as with "The Arrogance of Power," Summers is guilty of arrogance of hype. The most sensational passages purported to show that he-man, G-man Hoover was a homosexual and a cross-dresser. If true, that information carried significance, especially if it opened up Hoover to blackmail by members of organized crime families and other unsavory elements. So, I wondered, had all the previous biographers missed the evidence? Or found the so-called evidence and discarded it?

I can admit this: I wanted to accept Summers' evidence because of my visceral dislike for Hoover and my admiration for first-rate investigative reporting, even when the subject matter is salacious. But after checking Summers' documentation as carefully as an outside reviewer without subpoena power can, I found myself disbelieving many passages in Summers' book about Hoover's sexual orientation. That Summers would include damning information based on such weak evidence made me wonder what Summers and his publisher would do for an encore. Now I know.

As for Summers, I distrust the most sensationalistic revelations. As for Viking, I worry whether the drive toward best seller status has compromised standards of truth.

Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia, Mo. From 1983-1990, he served as executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), an international organization based at the University of Missouri Journalism School. Among his six published books is "The Reporter's Handbook: An Investigator's Guide to Documents and Techniques," written for IRE and published by St. Martin's Press. He is working on a revised edition.

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