By People Staff
August 05, 1996 12:00 PM

by Christopher Matthews

In the summer of 1950, Rep. John F. Kennedy delivered a $1,000 check from his father to California Rep. Richard M. Nixon’s Senate campaign. In a letter to a Navy pal after Nixon won the race, Kennedy described the new Senator as “an outstanding guy [who] has the opportunity to go all the way.” In 1953, Vice President Nixon sponsored Senator Kennedy as a member of the exclusive Burning Tree golf club in Bethesda, Md. The next year, as Kennedy lay near death after delicate back surgery, Nixon’s eyes burned with tears as he moaned, “Oh, God, don’t let him die.”

Matthews, Washington bureau chief of the San Francisco Examiner, contends that Nixon and Kennedy were bosom buddies up until the divisive presidential campaign of 1960 and that their rivalry defined postwar American politics. Neither premise is convincingly proved. Still, hidden in familiar accounts of the Great Debate, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Chappaquiddick and Watergate are enough details (some new) to titillate and amuse those who still fawn over the Camelot myth or revile the dark prince from California. (Simon & Schuster, $25)