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the Nixon-Kissinger phone call reacting to news of the 1973 coup in Chile that overthrew Salvador Al

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This brilliant, devious duo is glimpsed in a moment of gloating camaraderie, even as Watergate was bringing the presidency down around them. History, Mr. Dallek said, resides in such details.


Parsing the Nixon and Kissinger Pas de Deux

WASHINGTON, April 16 — Robert Dallek sat in the National Archives day after day, mining the 20,000 pages of Henry Kissinger’s telephone transcripts for historical gold. And every so often, amid the blur of bureaucratic tedium, a little nugget would glitter. One was the Nixon-Kissinger phone call reacting to news of the 1973 coup in Chile that overthrew Salvador Allende, whose Socialist government they had worked covertly to undermine through the C.I.A.

Mr. Kissinger grumbled to the president that American newspapers, “instead of celebrating,” were “bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.”

“Isn’t that something?” Nixon remarked.

“In the Eisenhower period, we would be heroes,” Mr. Kissinger said.

Well, we didn’t — as you know — our hand doesn’t show on this one,” the president said.

This brilliant, devious duo is glimpsed in a moment of gloating camaraderie, even as Watergate was bringing the presidency down around them. History, Mr. Dallek said, resides in such details.

Nixon is the fifth president to come under the scrutiny of Mr. Dallek, author of generally acclaimed books on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. This time he has chosen to pair the president with the adviser he describes as a “kind of co-president,” surmising that each would be a foil for the other. The 700-page result, “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power,” to be published next week by HarperCollins, shows that their extraordinary relationship was as much rivalry as partnership, as two driven men sparred over which of them would get the limelight both craved.

Even as they struggled together to find a way out of Vietnam, to pursue detente with the Soviet Union and to plan the opening to China, each complained incessantly in private about the other’s neuroses and instability. Nixon appears at times to have taken a sadistic pleasure in flaunting his casual anti-Semitism before his Jewish national security adviser. Mr. Kissinger was reliably flattering to the president’s face while cultivating the press to ensure a generous share of credit for the administration’s initiatives.

“Harsh life experiences had made both men cynical about people’s motives and encouraged convictions that outdoing opponents required a relaxed view of scruples,” Mr. Dallek writes. “Ironically, their cynicism would also make them rivals who could not satisfy their aspirations without each other.”

As Mr. Dallek pored over the new raw material that had attracted him to his subjects — the Kissinger transcripts, hundreds of newly released Nixon tapes and the voluminous diaries of H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff — he realized that this most secretive of presidencies had gradually become the most transparent. The tapes and transcripts both Nixon and Mr. Kissinger had preserved for their own use, out of a shared anxiety about how they would be remembered, have created an incomparably detailed record of their years in power.

“It’s the greatest asset a historian of an American president could ever have,” Mr. Dallek said in an interview in the top-floor study of his Northwest Washington town house, which looks out on leafy Rock Creek Park. He added, ruefully, “We’ll never have anything like it again.”

Mr. Dallek said he chose research projects partly based on what new material was becoming available from the excruciatingly slow declassification and review process at the overworked National Archives. He interviewed Mr. Kissinger, Alexander M. Haig, Brent Scowcroft and other still-living figures from the Nixon era, he said, but the book, with more than 1,300 endnotes, is built almost entirely from the contemporary record as preserved on paper and tape.

For a denizen of the archives, Mr. Dallek is an engaging man. He spent four decades teaching at Columbia, the University of California at Los Angeles, Boston University and Dartmouth, and he has an infectious enthusiasm for his material that makes him seem considerably younger than his 72 years. He and his wife, Geri, have two grown children, Rebecca and Matthew, who in 2004 published a book of his own on Reagan’s early political career.

It is easy to see what sparked the son’s interest. Robert Dallek cackles with delight as he shows off a 1964 Johnson-Humphrey campaign button from his collection, on which Hubert Humphrey’s mug is a bit bigger than the president’s. “Johnson was furious!” he exclaims, in the accent of his Brooklyn upbringing. “Just furious!”

Later, reading aloud rich snippets from the Nixon records, he cries: “Can you believe this? Amazing!” He is equal parts enthralled and appalled to find Nixon blaming the press coverage of the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam on “those dirty rotten Jews from New York,” and to find Mr. Kissinger describing his boss to aides and reporters as “that madman,” “our drunken friend” and “the meatball mind.”

In the 1980s Mr. Dallek spent four years studying psychoanalysis at a California research institute. He said he believes applying too much psychology to biography can be “reductionist,” but his book makes a compelling case for the underlying similarity of his two subjects as men whose insecurities were as striking as their talents.

Mr. Dallek, who describes himself as “an old-fashioned Franklin Roosevelt Democrat,” gives both men credit for their accomplishments: Nixon for China, Mr. Kissinger for shuttle diplomacy in the Mideast. “These guys function at a very high level, despite their pathologies,” he said.

From his immersion in the painful episodes of Nixon’s drinking, middle-of-the-night phone calls and relentless self-doubt, Mr. Dallek said, he “came away having greater sympathy and compassion for Nixon.”

He added, “He was a man who suffered a great deal emotionally.”

For Mr. Kissinger he seems to have developed no comparable feeling. “What should I call him?” Mr. Dallek said. “A brilliant scoundrel.” (Mr. Kissinger did not respond to a request for comment on the book, excerpts of which were published this month in Vanity Fair.)

Reading about the bitter internecine clashes and following the telephone soundtrack of the Nixon administration, it is impossible not to wonder how a similarly documented account of the current Bush White House might read. The writing of “Nixon and Kissinger” coincided almost exactly with the Iraq war, and Mr. Dallek said he was haunted by the parallels long before last year’s revelation that Mr. Kissinger, 83, has occasionally advised President Bush.

One pattern in particular seems relevant, he said: the reassurances that Nixon and Mr. Kissinger continually offered each other between 1969 and 1973 about the likely success of each of their moves in Vietnam, from the incursion into Cambodia to the prospects for “Vietnamization,” the gradual shift of the burden of combat from American to South Vietnamese troops.

With them, as with other presidents he has studied, “there’s a degree of autointoxication,” Mr. Dallek said.

“They convince themselves of what they want to believe,” he continued. He said he sensed the same phenomenon in the Bush administration and what he called the plan for “Iraqization” to reduce American involvement in the current war.

But even as he waxed sarcastic about the current White House, the historian in Mr. Dallek interrupted the pundit. “Well,” he declared, “we’ll have to wait 30 or 40 years to make real judgments.”

Presumably those judgments will have to arrive without tapes and transcripts, but Mr. Dallek has high hopes for a new kind of minute evidence that postdates the Nixon era. “I think the e-mails,” he said, “will give us an incredible record of how things happened.”

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