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.”
* * *
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.