Note: This review is also posted on the San Francisco Review of Books and can be read by clicking here).
Richard Nixon was a complicated man in many ways. In other ways he appeared to be a typical politician. A bumbling simpleton who saw himself as a valiant hero, though he often came across as the former. He was a man who seemed very detached and cool from his wife in public, yet maintained a close relationship with her in private. He was a man who compartmentalized his life and at times sought to distance his family from the seedy world of politics. While at other times he used the family as props in a political theater where the object is to gain votes and gain power. This is the convoluted and complicated figure that was Richard Nixon; and this is the thesis of the book Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas.
Nixon grew up poor and somewhat resentful of it. His father was the owner of a small business who struggled to make ends meet. His mother was a devout Quaker who instilled a pacifistic religion in her son, that he conversely adhered to and ignored throughout his life. In one sense, Nixon never forgot where he came from. He remembered that he was a “poor” child who grew up in Whittier, California without the luxuries of life. He had to work hard to make his way. He was the “unfavored” child who lived in the shadow of a brother who was more handsome, smart, and gifted. But also fatally inflicted with tuberculosis. Harold Nixon died at 23, leaving Richard to carry the family name to stardom. And this he did.
Richard worked hard at Whittier College, earning good grades and a spot as a benchwarmer on the college football team. Upon graduation, he accepted a scholarship to Duke University’s School of Law, where his unrelenting study habits paid off. Richard never forget his lack of culture and affluence and used it to drive him all of his days. Near the end of his life he remarked of his success: “What starts the process are the laughs and snubs and slights you get when you are a kid. Sometimes it’s because you’re poor or Irish or Jewish or Catholic or ugly or skinny. But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn you can change those attitudes by excellence, by personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.” (pg. 702) While Nixon spent plenty of time sitting on his own butt, it was in the Duke library where he was devoted to study. A classmate once remarked that Nixon would eventually be a successful lawyer because he had one necessary quality, an “iron butt” that would sit and study for hours.
Nixon graduated and was shunned by the upper crust, east coast law firms. He went back to Whittier with his new bride Pat Ryan and eventually entered politics. Though not gifted with the smooth personality of the gabber, he managed to “wonk” his way to success by memorizing names of supporters and campaigning with a rare stamina not seen in most. He was determined. He was driven. And when necessary, he was dirty.
Eventually he climbed the political ladder from Representative to Senator, where he led the espionage case against Alger Hiss. A high profile case that would make Nixon a national political star and catapult him to the Vice-Presidency under Dwight Eisenhower. The relationship with Ike was “cool” as the President kept his distance, much to the chagrin of Nixon. While flirting with the idea of dropping Nixon from the ticket, Ike ultimately kept him and won two terms in the Oval Office. Nixon gained incredible executive and foreign policy experience as VP; that he would one day parlay into the presidency himself. But that was still a long way off in 1960.
Nixon made television history with his famous debates with John F. Kennedy, who flourished under the lights; just as Nixon floundered. Kennedy won the election in 1960 and Nixon return to California where he tried his hand at state politics, running for governor, and losing. He eventually sulked back to New York to enter private law practice and whining to the California press that they “wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” But Nixon’s hiatus was temporary and he quickly began networking for a 1968 run at the White House. In this, he succeeded by blowing out a fractured Democratic Party that was beset with Vietnam War protestors and in-fighting. By his inauguration in 1969, Nixon seemed to have reached the pinnacle of success; and the first term seemed to bear this out. He made diplomatic trips to China and Russia; and well as repeated efforts to broker peace in Vietnam. While generally loathed by the elitists in the east coast press, Nixon was ballyhooed by many as a foreign policy champion. He seemed to have everything working in his favor, but things would soon unravel.
Nixon won re-election easily in 1972, but very soon in the second term the specter of Watergate began to encroach. The “third rate burglary” and bugging of the Democratic headquarters revealed a sinister and paranoid presidency. Many thought Nixon would be untouched by the controversy, as it was widely known that other presidents had done just as bad and often worse acts. Nevertheless, Nixon ultimately ushered in his own fall by installing a taping system in the White House that recorded every word he said in conversation with his advisors. The evidence was damning and ugly; as eventually the nation heard Nixon’s profane rantings and his plans to punish anyone on his “enemies list.” Associates Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, and others were quick to do Nixon’s bidding and sink his once proud administration.
The relationship between Nixon and Henry Kissinger proves to be enticing as well. Petulant and jealous of one another, the two men often jockeyed for glory in the eyes of the press as to who was the true foreign policy genius and who was the student. Historians have been more kind to Kissinger, though perhaps Nixon deserves more credit than he received.
A tortured soul, alone and bitter, Nixon resigned the Presidency on August 8, 1974 to avoid an almost certain impeachment. Gerald Ford eventually issued a full pardon to Nixon in a politically suicidal move that probably cost Ford the 1976 election. Ford declared, “our long national nightmare is over.” And so it was. Nixon was gone from politics for good and few would miss him.
Nixon spent his later years writing books and occasionally advising sitting presidents. He took several trips abroad and drew much closer to his wife, daughters, and grandchildren. He died in 1994 at the age of 81 having reached a status in retirement that eluded him in his career. He had become a respected “elder statesmen” who presented an aura of honor.
Nixon’s life is interesting, but probably not much different from other political leaders. He, at times, would seem to do anything to gain power, then do anything else to keep it. He always carried a deep seated resentment of wealthy, establishment, “Harvard types” though he tapped many of these types to be his advisors. Nixon was enigmatic, while at the same time being a typical politician. He soared to incredible heights, then saw his popularity plunge to all-time lows (17 percent approval rating in 1974). One admires his tenacity and hard work, while recoiling at his political sleaziness and paranoid behavior. Nixon was a man and as Thomas points out, a “divided” man at that. In a moment of reflection after Watergate, Nixon said, “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” No doubt this is good advice. And no doubt it was advice Nixon gave to others but did not heed himself. Nixon confessed that his mistakes “gave my enemies a sword with which to plunge into me.” Indeed, his enemies hated him, but Nixon brought much upon himself. His life is an interesting and informative case study in the lures and dangers of personal ambition and political power. Thomas does a good job of painting the literary picture of a complicated and at times petulant man. The book flows easily and was a comfortable read. Enticing and interesting, I would recommend it as a valuable source on one of our most unique national leaders.