CHRISTOPHER MATTHEWS, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 377 pp. $25.00 cloth (ISBN 0-684-81030-1).
The political rivalry between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, writes journalist Christopher Matthews, pitted "a Mozart against a Salieri, two antagonists with the same ambition--to be the great young leader of post-World War II America" (p. 21). Matthews concentrates on both men's political careers rather than their youths or personal lives. The author discusses how these two men jockeyed for the political limelight, competed for the White House, and continued to cross swords during JFK's truncated presidency. Matthews also considers how JFK's memory haunted Nixon and helped derail his administration.
Matthews argues that the Kennedy-Nixon relationship was both complex and an important agent for change in Cold War America. During the forties and fifties, the two men were friendly competitors. As Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy aimed for the White House; however, their rivalry grew heated, even nasty. After JFK won the presidency, it descended into obsession, skulduggery, and tragedy, laying the groundwork for the twin nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate. The closeness of the 1960 election encouraged JFK to stand firm against communist expansion in Southeast Asia. To head off a Kennedy restoration under the leadership of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Nixon sanctioned political "dirty tricks" and destroyed his presidency.
Matthews is best at describing the early years of the Kennedy-Nixon relationship. With the aid of newspapers, interviews, and documents from the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in California, he shows that the two men were closer than one might suspect. After Representatives Kennedy and Nixon debated labor issues in Pennsylvania, they ate together and chatted about baseball. They exuded, in the words of one observer, "genuine friendliness" toward each other (p. 52). Nixon recommended Kennedy for membership in his golf club. Kennedy sent Nixon an autographed copy of his book, Profiles in Courage. In 1954, Nixon became upset on learning of JFK's near death during back surgery. Ideologically, the two men had much in common. Both were hardheaded cold warriors who despised leftists, supported the red-baiting of Joe McCarthy, and denounced President Harry S. Truman for "losing" China to the "Reds."
Matthews stumbles when trying to prove that the Kennedy-Nixon rivalry "marked and drove the era" (p. 21). In...