Being Nixon

Being Nixon – A Man Divided by Evan Thomas (2015)

Sentimentality – which friend and foe agreed Nixon had in spades – was probably the trait that betrayed him.  The Peter Sellers of politicians, Nixon (9 January 1913 – 22 April 1994) never got comfortable with his own skin, so he posed as – machismo, family-man, kindly, bold, psycho, sucker and reclusive seer, etc., those personas he schmaltzily thought would play with the silent majority, or make him feel better.  In this very balanced and readable book, Mr. Thomas gets fairly close to the enigma of ‘Tricky Dick‘ without vituperation or high-falootin’ prose.

Nixon’s life is a perpetual feast but here the relevant events, and several episodes judiciously selected for enjoyment or understanding, are presented fairly and frankly.  The author has done his leg-work but he never really gets in the head of his subject (an impossible brief).

Sentimentality led Nixon to be optimistic in the face of facts, to assume people shared his (ever-changing) image of himself, to misunderstand social change as a personal affront, and to place too much store in individual relationships (he worked so hard at them; they must be earthshaking).  Whilst Kissinger’s eulogy – “He achieved greatly and he suffered greatly, but he never gave up” were gracious, generous and to a degree, true, his legendary resilience could be discarded in heartbeats on occasion, either in fits of pique or hard-headed, cold-hearted awareness. (For example: his ‘last press conference’ after ignominious defeat in the 1962 Californian gubernatorial race, or his resignation as President, that gut-wrenching yet noble gesture owing more, probably, to his higher instincts).

Nixon’s memoir is worth a read, being mostly candid and occasionally delusional.  The best third-party accounts of him are still found in Kissinger’s memoirs of his time at the White House and as Secretary of State in the second term, and oddly enough, in Woodward and Bernsteins’ The Final Days, but this ‘outsider’ book is close to the best, staying clear of invective or panegyric.

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Mr. Thomas quotes Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, identifying his ex-boss’s ‘light side’ as “exceptionally considerate, exceptionally caring, sentimental, generous of spirit, kind” and the ‘dark side’ as “angry, vindictive, ill-tempered, mean-spirited.”  This of course might reflect the various facets of anyone at different times and circumstances, but note Price’s designation of sentimentality as part of the ‘light side.’

Rather than descending to pop psychology, let’s follow Aristotle and judge Nixon by his actions:

THE NAUGHTY LIST:                                                              HISTORY WILL BE KIND:

Bombing Cambodia                                                                  Going to China

The Jidda agreement                                                                SALT

Obstructing Justice                                                                   Vietnam Peace Settlement

Attempting to fix prices and incomes                                       EPA

The Plumbers                                                                           Accepting the dodgy 1960 vote

Milk and water McCarthyism                                                   Shuttle diplomacy

The Fund Speech                                                                     Resignation Speech

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What about that last ‘victory salute’?  Defiant, mad, or both?

 

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