Richard Nixon Was Not Misunderstood

Many authors have been tempted into writing revisionist histories of the 37th U.S. president, but these counterintuitive takes often do not hold up under closer scrutiny.

Every once in a while someone writes a book arguing that Richard Nixon has been misunderstood. These authors tend to focus on some particular aspect of his presidency that, the argument goes, is more important than that Watergate business. They’ve focused on his domestic policy or his foreign policy as achievements that override his flaws and his presidency’s denouement. Nixon’s highly complex persona also has led to books that probe his psyche—a hazardous and widely debunked practice, though that hasn’t discouraged further attempts.
And, as with other major figures, but all the more so given the drama of his time on the national stage, Nixon’s complexity and essentially low repute tempts some authors to offer revisionist approaches to his place in history. Such approaches have to be assessed on their own merits, not accepted merely because they’re counterintuitive or receive a lot of attention, as new assessments of the controversial and fascinating Nixon tend to do. Two major revisionist books about Nixon argued that his domestic policy was so expansive, humane, and innovative that it overrides his unfortunate behavior; their accounts relegate Watergate to a far less important role. The problem with these books is that they don’t stand up to close scrutiny.
Tom Wicker, a former Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, mounted the domestic-policy case in One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream, in which he stressed and lauded Nixon’s "underrated and unrecognized" domestic achievements. The historian Joan Hoff makes a similar case in Nixon Reconsidered. Hoff, who had considerable (and rare) access to Nixon, argued that his foreign-policy achievements, which she felt had been overrated, and Watergate had clouded his considerable domestic achievements. Stanley Kutler, of the University of Wisconsin, did a heroic job of helping to win the release of and transcribing Nixon tapes, and his book, The Wars of Watergate, is thorough. Its account of the impeachment process in the House Judiciary Committee, though, is flat wrong, based as it is on interviews with a deposed committee counsel who was considered a too-partisan Democrat and discontented Democrats on the left who wanted a more politicized process.
It’s true enough that in his domestic policy Nixon was a pragmatist who occupied a place slightly to the right of center—and the right at that time was considerably to the left of where it is today. What the books lauding Nixon’s domestic policy fail to make clear is the context in which he was operating, and the role that he had in the legislation for which he’s being so lauded in hindsight. At the time, no one, including Nixon, thought of him as a liberal. Nixon was a pragmatist. Nixon in fact spoke of himself as a conservative who wanted smaller government. But he faced an activist Democratic Congress, and if he wanted to avoid being a veto machine, he had to compromise with the Democrats, sometimes after a fight that Nixon lost. He’s given credit for signing into law several bills to improve the environment, including establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. But in fact, Nixon wasn’t very interested in the subject and he fobbed it off on his aides to handle, saying at one point: “Just keep me out of trouble on environmental issues.” He privately called the then-rising environmental movement “crap” for “clowns.” Still, Nixon can be said to have been the last Republican president who accepted the idea that federal programs could be efficacious.
Nixon’s foreign policy has also been praised in several books and with some reason, though I wouldn’t go as far as some of his admirers in foreign-policy circles who maintain that his singular achievements—détente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China—overtake all other aspects of his presidency. And the recitations of Nixon’s foreign-policy successes tend to overlook his shortcomings in that area. Nixon and his sometimes sidekick and sometimes rival Henry Kissinger tended to view the world through the lens of the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. They were essentially blind to nationalist movements. They saw the North Vietnamese as proxies for the Soviets, who were, in their (misguided) opinion, in league with the Chinese. This is one reason the Vietnam War went on as long as it did. Nixon is often given credit for ending that war despite the fact that in the opinion of numerous foreign-policy experts it went on for nearly five more years than it needed to. In the end, the U.S. didn’t win significantly more concessions from the North Vietnamese than Lyndon Johnson had been on track to obtain in negotiations in Paris before Nixon had them blown up in order to win the 1968 election.The list of blunders included arming the shah of Iran to the teeth to help him maintain the iron rule that provoked a revolution that’s still bedeviling the U.S.; the cold calculation that led Nixon and Kissinger to not only not intervene in but to abet Pakistani atrocities against Bangladesh; and Nixon’s and Kissinger’s roles in overthrowing a democratically elected government in Chile.
But it’s Nixon’s personal attributes that invite the most interest. He was one of the most fascinating figures to occupy the oval office and his personal traits were the author of his doom. Like most humans Nixon was a complex person, only more so. Some people are better than others at controlling their instincts and impulses; Nixon from all appearances did a poor job of that. He was often openly angry, not infrequently depressed, and more than occasionally drunk on the job, but his daughters loved him and remain fiercely loyal. Pat Nixon hated politics but the evidence is that their marriage was stronger than commonly believed. Richard Nixon fought back after political losses, and though painfully shy and awkward around people, when necessary he could display the requisite buoyancy;  but he misunderstood the rules of the game and confused opponents with enemies—with dire consequences. He was uncommonly self-pitying and uncommonly resilient. Nixon’s resentments, his certainty that others more advantaged looked down on him, and his desire to fight back and get revenge all started at a very young age. As a boy Nixon had no friends and was a loner but in high school he was elected to several leadership positions. His schoolmates said he simply worked harder at it. He was an A-student and a champion debater. He was constantly proving himself: The physically awkward young man went out for football, and hung in there even though he was third string. Even after he was elected president of the United States, he had only one close friend, Bebe Rebozo, who appealed to Nixon because he wouldn’t speak unless spoken to and the two men could spend hours together in silence.
Inexorably, some authors have been tempted to offer their own psychoanalyses of Nixon. But analyzing from afar is fraught and widely discredited. After 1,179 psychiatrists in 1964 signed a statement saying that Barry Goldwater was psychologically unfit to be president, the American Psychiatric Association issued a ban on practitioners “analyzing” someone they haven’t treated. Such efforts usually fall into a trap of the author’s making. Richard Nixon: The Shaping of his Character, by Fawn Brodie, a historian, in 1981, was widely dismissed as an exercise in psychobabble. Nixon: A Psychobiography, by two psychoanalysts and a marketing consultant, says of Nixon’s physical awkwardness that it “may also correspond to anxieties related to masturbation or to murderous fantasies directed toward the Oedipal father.”
It doesn’t require psychiatric study to understand that Nixon’s long-nurtured anger and resentments and his uncontrolled acting on those feelings, eventually brought him down. Surprisingly, perhaps, Nixon was not unaware of this. In a rare moment of contemplativeness, in the seclusion of exile in San Clemente, he reflected to an aide on the cost of his practice of getting even. Nixon said, “What starts the process are the laughs and snubs and slights you get when you’re a kid … It’s all a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find that you can’t stop playing the game because it is part of you ... So you’re lean and mean and resourceful and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you’ve become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.”
When the aide suggested that this last time it had been different, the disgraced Nixon, who had just lost the office he’d scratched and scrambled for most of his adult years, replied softly, “Yes. This time we had something to lose.”
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The latest entry into Nixonalysis comes from Evan Thomas, the former Washington bureau chief of Newsweek and the author of some best-selling biographies. Thomas offers the novel theory that Nixon was “locked in a titanic battle between hope and fear,” between his “light side” and his “dark side” and that “he struggled, bravely if not always wisely, against the dark.” Thomas says that Nixon was engaged “in a heroic if ill-fated struggle to be robust, decent, good-hearted person.” He continues, “In his battle against his darker impulses, he fought with a kind of desperate courage.” Thomas depicts Nixon as putting on the tough-guy image to impress his aides. “He wanted to show that he was hard because he felt soft.” Thomas writes, “When Nixon was trying to sound tough …he would sometimes make racist remarks.” “Sometimes” doesn’t begin to describe the frequency, not to mention the evident effortlessness, of Nixon’s vilification of blacks and Jews. Did Nixon think he needed to sound tough in the presence of Billy Graham, the two men sharing their view of what they saw as the outsized role of Jews in the media? Thomas’s dramatic interpretation makes for an interesting theory but it lacks evidence as well as plausibility, and it seems to have been appliquéd onto Nixon to present him in a new light. It’s hard to see how a person so divided against himself could get through the day. It just isn’t how humans function.
There’s no question that Nixon was a complex figure, but diagnoses of his psyche from afar are theories lacking proof, readings of his soul as well as his mind by people who never knew him. Thomas tells us he put together his thesis after having talked to a number of former Nixon aides as well as family members. Julie Nixon Eisenhower, whom Thomas cites for evidence of his theory, is a lovely woman, but not exactly dispassionate about her father. Thomas also relied on a hagiography written by Jonathan Aitkin, a British member of Parliament to whom Nixon also gave unusual access. What Thomas offers is, in the end, a theory, highly unlikely as a description of human nature. It’s not that simple: We’re all a jumble of contradictions, some better than others at handling them.
The striking thing about Nixon, in fact, is the extent to which he laid himself out before the public. As a result of his occasional monologues in press conferences, the revealing stray comments, and the thousands of hours of tapes he left behind, as well as the various dramas the country went through with him, more is known about him than about any other president. Some of the dramas were quite frightening; at times it appeared we had a president out of control—and there’s some evidence that that was the case. (Nixon, at Camp David with Bebe Rebozo, was drunk on the eve of the invasion of Cambodia, making call after call to worried aides, urging them to be tough. He’d also ordered them to watch Patton.) He took us through his ordeal, he talked about it at the time; the public shared it with him. There’s no need for grand theories or deep probing to understand him—even if those approaches were useful. ​
Like most people, Nixon lived highs and lows, only to a greater degree. In calculating how to advance his career he was willing to go further than almost anyone else we’ve known of; and he sought to wreak revenge, for which he had a larger need and capacity—and opportunity—than most people. At times he was like a mafia don in the White House while at others he could put his considerable intelligence to use, rationally discussing policy or world affairs; he was drunk on some vital occasions, frequently barking outlandish orders to his aides on the phone into the early hours of the morning, and at other times he was calm and collected; he engaged in anti-Semitic and racist rants and his swearing (caught recorded on the tapes) shocked even hardened politicians of his own party, but he could also display a certain awkward charm and correctly fulfill his ceremonial duties; he was a hater who was tender toward his daughters, and wept openly and uncontrollably at his wife’s funeral. Either he was the greatest actor on or off the stage—greater than Olivier or Gielgud—or his crude, vindictive, often heedless talk and actions weren’t such a struggle to pull off. There’s an inconsistency in the idea that he was struggling against his dark side and that he “had to show that he was hard because he felt soft.”
The substantive evidence Thomas elicits of Nixon’s good side triumphing in terms of his policies is shaky. For example, he asserts that Nixon, in all sincerity, integrated the Southern schools. In fact, Nixon instructed government agencies to go only as far as required by court orders and no further. He told an aide: “I think if we can keep liberal writers convinced that we are doing what the Court requires, and our conservative friends we are not doing any more than what the Court requires, I think we can walk this tightrope until November, 1972.”
Thomas also argues that it was Nixon and not Ronald Reagan who formed the modern Republican party. But he glosses over the fact that Nixon did this through his “Southern strategy,” which was to appeal to racial prejudice in the South and among blue-collar workers in the North and West. (Thomas is correct that “law and order” was part of this strategy, but he soft-pedals its racial aspect.) He refers in passing to “Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy to win white votes in the South,” which goes unexamined or explained. The legacy of Nixon’s Southern Strategy is that to this day, the Republican Party subtly or not so subtly cultivates racism, since it depends on the states of the Deep South in the electoral college.
Thomas offers a familiar rationale for his corrective. Like some others, he says that this is necessary to offset accounts of Nixon as a cartoon figure, a caricature of evil incarnate, a 24/7 monster. He’s right that Nixon has on occasion been portrayed, incorrectly, in such a way. But to dismiss the wealth of books about Nixon in this fashion is itself a caricature. In my own two books about Nixon I expressed some empathy for a man trapped in his own warped psyche who became the author of his own ruin. My account in an afterword to Washington Journal chronicled his struggle to climb back up from the bottom, when as the only president forced from office he was disgraced and isolated in San Clemente, while many of his aides went to jail. But this exceptionally resilient figure made a plan (“Wizard”) to get back on his feet, personally and financially. His methodical execution of the plan was a mixture of the old Nixonian cunning and also pathos; considerable intelligence and focused determination. He pulled it off and was embraced by the establishment. The joke was on them: Tout New York wanted to be invited to the dinners (fine Chinese food served by Chinese staff) Nixon gave in his New York (Chinese decorated) brownstone. He made more trips to China and the traveled about this country making speeches about great leaders he had known, and wrote more books and op-eds. In late 1979, Gallup ranked him as one of the 10 most-admired people in the world. Though he was the last person Jimmy Carter wanted at the first state dinner for a Chinese leader, Nixon wangled his way in (with the help of the Chinese). He blackmailed Bill Clinton into seeking his advice on Russia. No fewer than five presidents turned up for his funeral—Nixon’s ultimate triumph.
Nixon was our most fascinating president since Abraham Lincoln (and that includes FDR), and he’s certainly worth examining. But we don’t need more psychobabble or revisionism for its own sake.