Richard Nixon liked to be alone. He rarely used the Oval Office, preferring his hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building. A poor sleeper, he would wander from cabin to cabin at Camp David, looking for a place to write on his ubiquitous yellow pad, which his aides called his “best friend.” From time to time, he would write inspirational notes to himself, about the need for “joy in the job,” “confidence,” and “serenity.”
Writing a biography of Nixon, I was surprised by how hard he tried to be an optimistic, upbeat leader. He was always trying to “buck up” his staff, and, I suspect, himself. We have a cartoon version of Nixon in our heads—the dark, pathological figure, vengeful and scheming. Nixon did have a terrible dark side, and it wrecked his presidency. But he was a far more complex—and tragic—figure than we assume. Though he gave off every sign of being a man who totally lacked self-awareness, he was, I believe, engaged in a terrific, if only dimly understood, battle within himself to overcome his fears and agonies. He ultimately failed, but his struggle is a compellingly dramatic story, and it made me want to learn more about what it was like to actually be Nixon.
Egged on by his aides, he liked to play the tough guy. “God, I hate spending time with intellectuals,” he once said. “There’s something feminine about them. I’d rather talk to an athlete.” Nixon was blustering. He was himself an intellectual who read widely and deeply in political philosophy, who could be truly original in his thinking and who was drawn to intellectuals as advisers. He professed to hate Harvard. “None of those Harvard bastards!” he bellowed to his aides. But as his principal foreign and domestic advisers he chose Harvard professors Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Working with Moynihan, Nixon advocated welfare reform that was twenty years ahead of its time. Nixon also proposed healthcare reform that closely resembles the healthcare act passed by Barack Obama. Opening up China was Nixon’s idea, not Kissinger’s. Told in 1969 that Nixon intended to go to China, Kissinger responded, “Fat chance.”