I spent my summer with Charles Manson and Richard Nixon – the former through the You Must Remember podcast and the biography by Jeff Guinn. As for Nixon this summer I read Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas. To complement my reading I also made use of a lot of the excellent YouTube material about the former president. I was also thinking of a One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner: But it sounded like too much of a hatchet job and I plumped for Thomas. I think that I made the right choice as A Man Divided is a balanced, perceptive and highly entertaining portrait of Richard Milhous Nixon the 37th president of the United States of America.
Now there have been some eccentric US presidents. Thomas Jefferson edited the Bible leaving out all the spiritual stuff. Jimmy Carter claimed he had been attacked by killer rabbits. Ronald Reagan would often cite stories from Hollywood as if they had happened in real life. But Richard Nixon is right up there with the best of them. What strikes me about him was his total lack of ease around people. The book is replete with examples:
In St. Petersburg, Florida, a policeman was severely injured when his motorcycle flipped over while driving in the presidential motorcade. In his considerate way, Nixon rushed from his limousine to express his sympathies. As was his way, he also didn’t know what to say, blurting to the policeman who lay bleeding on the ground, “Do you like your work?”
And before an interview with David Frost, in 1977 he asked, “Well, did you do any fornicating this weekend?”
Now if he had been an accountant or a quantity surveyor it might have held him back somewhat. In a career where pressing the flesh is so important, this should have killed off any chances he might have had. In fact, he was surprisingly successful as a politician. He served as Dwight Eisenhower’s Veep. It was, however a rather distant relationship. In the summer of 1960 Eisenhower was asked if he could think of a major contribution that Nixon had made to his administration. His reply: “Well, if you give me a week I might think of one.“
The 1960 presidential campaign is famous for the presidential debate. Those who heard on the radio thought that Nixon was the winner. But it was television where the debate would be decided and Nixon, recovering from an illness and without make-up, looked ill at ease, especially when compared to the allure of JFK. Nevertheless, Nixon would almost certainly have won the election but for the massive voting corruption organised by Joe Kennedy. When he lost the California gubernatorial race in 1962, he went into retirement:
“You don’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
This sense of resentment against the press and east-coast liberal elites was another defining characteristic of the man. But he did come back and invoking the power of the Silent Majority, he won two successive elections.
What can we say about Nixon’s two-term (One and a half to be precise) presidency? In terms of foreign policy the most notable achievements were his visit to China and the détente with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, his biggest failure was Vietnam. He didn’t take the country, but he didn’t get out and initiatives such as the bombing of Cambodia helped divide society. This was apparent in the Kent State massacre of 1970, in which four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard. But what brought the the polarisation was brought home to me when I saw this video of The Ray Conniff singers performing at the White House. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting this:
You almost feel sorry for him. It’s not like he invited someone from the counterculture to play.
Yet paradoxically many of his policies belie the image of a man of the hard right. He presided over the extension of the Voting Rights Act, the passage of the Clean Air Act, the creation of the White House Office of Consumer Affairs and wage and price controls in a flawed bid to bring down inflation. He increased spending on Social Security, and Medicare. And some 40 years before ObamaCare, he proposed the creation of a national health-insurance scheme.
One of the inexplicable things he did was to install that recording system in the Oval Office. What was he thinking? There is even this quote from him:
“I’m glad I’m not Brezhnev. Being the Russian leader in the Kremlin. You never know if someone’s tape recording what you say.”
It was however a wonderful resource for linguists who could pore over hundreds hours of real language. It was also the basis of the show Nixon’s the One, in which Harry Shearer of the Simpsons portrays the 37th president. The show shows Nixon in all his glorious paranoia. It is a comedy, but using only the actual words said by Nixon and his colourful staff.
They may have been a boon for linguists and comedians, but they played a fundamental role in the event that would ultimately define his presidency – the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Nixon had to go, but you can’t help thinking that he would have won the election without this bungling, tawdry plan. And if he had been upfront at he beginning, things may have turned out differently. As he left the White House for the last time in August 1974 his parting words were:
“Remember, 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.”
If only he could have followed his own advice.