THE CHINA CARD by John Ehrlichman
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THE CHINA CARD

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Once again (in a roman à clef that doesn't need a clef), Ehrlichman (The Company, 1976; The Whole Truth, 1979) trots out that old White House gang of his and puts them through their paces, but even up-close-and-personal glimpses of Nixon's nose can't save this padded, contrived China card from being a joker. It's 1966 and young Matt Thompson has just gone to work for the New York law firm of Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie and Alexander. His father, a China scholar, is an old Whittier College professor of Dick Nixon's, but even after Rose Mary Woods leans over from her typewriter and arranges a meeting (""Matt could not recall having seen a more unpleasant displacement of a human face""), Matt is still a very junior member of the firm. Which is why everyone is so surprised when an important Hong Kong client insists that Matt come over to handle his company's affairs. He does, and meets Professor Teng, an old friend of Matt's father who has been rescued from the Cultural Revolution by Chou Eh-lai--on the condition that Teng ensnare Matt to act as a spy for China's interests in Nixon's blossoming campaign for the '68 presidency (Chou is certain Nixon is the only one who will make a rapprochement with China). Matt agrees--unaware of the extent to which he is being used--because he thinks it's historically the right thing to do, and after helping Nixon win the presidency, becomes an important advisor, pushing Nixon closer and closer to opening relations with China. Kissinger and Haig have his phone bugged (but only because they think he's secretly manipulating Nixon against them), but Matt is finally able to inform his Chinese connections (which by this time include Chou En-lai himself) that their goal is achieved; unfortunately, when Kissinger arrives with an advance party in 1971, Chou throws Matt to the wolves by telling Henry of Matt's role as a spy. It's nearly curtains for poor Matt, until he comes up with the idea of threatening to reveal to all of the world that Nixon's idea of opening China was really implanted by Chou En-lai. Kissinger and Nixon back off, snarling, and Matt is able to flee to Europe with his cute Chinese girlfriend. All in all: swollen out of all proportion to its slender plot idea by seemingly interminable political and geopolitical discussions that are really authorial asides, heavy with self-importance but light on originality. Matt himself is bland and unbelievably innocent. And while Ehrlichman ""does"" Nixon very well, if meanly--his ""lifelessness"" and ""cast-iron jocularity""--it's a party trick that gets staler with every turn.

Pub Date: May 22nd, 1986
Publisher: Simon & Schuster