Being Nixon: A Man Divided
by Evan Thomas.
Random House, 2015.
Hardcover, 619 pages, $35.
The Nixon Effect: How Richard Nixon’s Presidency Fundamentally Changed American Politics
by Douglas Schoen.
Encounter Books, 2016.
Hardcover, 384 pages, $27.
“Even Richard Nixon has got soul,” sang rock star Neil Young at the close of the 1970s. Evan Thomas, well-known biographer and journalist, set out to explore this claim in Being Nixon: A Man Divided. His goal was to get beneath conventional understandings of the thirty-seventh president’s elusive personality and “to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon” (p. xv). Less a standard political biography than an effort to apprehend Nixon’s humanity, Thomas challenges the long-held view that Nixon at bottom was brooding, cynical, and essentially unhappy. His book inthat sense is a revisionist study of Nixon, with whom he clearly sympathizes on a human level. The Richard Nixon of these pages is courageous, persevering, and even noble in his determination to overcome his introverted nature and persist in the face of defeats and obstacles that would have crushed most people. Indeed, one cannot help but share some of Thomas’s compassion and admiration for his subject.
Throughout his long political career and its extended aftermath Nixon saw himself as an outsider, rejected from the outset by the “better people” of Washington. Thomas recounts one telling episode in which Nixon, soon after his election to the U.S. Senate from California in 1950, arrived with his wife Patricia at a swank dinner party in the exclusive Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. Averill Harriman, heir to a railroad fortune, a former Cabinet official, and wartime U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, had supported Nixon’s opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, in that bruising campaign. Seeing the Nixons enter, Harriman bellowed, “I will not break bread with that man.” One would think by Harriman’s reaction that he had just encountered a former Nazi S.S. officer seeking to worm his way into respectable society. Nonetheless, as Thomas explains, Nixon early on grasped the essential fact that there were always more outsiders than insiders, and used that to his political advantage.
Thomas does not ignore Nixon’s well known foibles and personality flaws; instead he emphasizes the awkward and at times downright clumsy poignancy of “an introvert in an extrovert’s business” (p. xiii) presiding over the United States in the media age. He also stresses Nixon’s undeniable courage, including most famously his cool in the face of a menacing mob in Venezuela while he was vice president. Richard Nixon could also be (or at least make a mighty effort to be) surprisingly upbeat, arriving in the warmth of the White House family quarters after a day’s work, for example, bent on being optimistic and insisting that only such cheerful music as show tunes be played on the family stereo. Yet even in that forced joy there is a grim determination that is truly Nixonian.
No book on Richard Nixon would be credible without an extended treatment of the agony of Watergate. Thomas is not the first to attribute the debacle to Nixon’s deep-rooted insecurity that created and then fed a siege mentality in the White House. But this is not a trap that could have been avoided entirely by anyone entering the presidency in January of 1969 of a nation torn by Vietnam, cultural and racial divisions, and increasingly racked by violence. Nixon was indeed a man divided between the visionary and talented statesman and the brooding political infighter whose insecurities frequently, and ultimately, got the best of him.
The publication of Thomas’s book is also proof that the passage of time has not ended the debate around its subject. Nixon’s most enduring critics to this day want no part in any rehabilitation of a man they consider one of the great villains of modern American history. At least two negative reviews of Being Nixon were published by veteran Washington journalists (including Carl Bernstein, one of the young Washington Post reporters who originally uncovered the links between the Watergate burglars and the Nixon administration) soon after its publication.
Democratic consultant and political observer Douglas Schoen is less interested in Nixon’s humanity than in his formidable political skills and profound influence on American politics, his 1974 resignation from the presidency notwithstanding. The Nixon Effect: How Richard Nixon’s Presidency Fundamentally Changed American Politics, published in time for a 2016 presidential campaign that even Nixon himself might have struggled to understand completely, is not an in-depth scholarly reappraisal of Nixon’s policies. Those interested in that should turn to Joan Hoff’s Nixon Reconsidered (1994), on whose work Schoen relies heavily. Schoen’s book is more of a study of Nixon as a transformative figure in American politics, one who shattered the Democratic Party’s Roosevelt/New Deal coalition in his landslide reelection of 1972, even as some of his policies pursued as president can rightly be described as centrist or even liberal. Schoen emphasizes, for example, how Nixon quietly moved forward, by working with state and local communities, the long-sought goal of school integration. His administration did more to implement the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision than had his predecessors of both parties. Nixon, who in his first campaign (for Congress in 1946) offered voters “a sound progressive program,” also championed affirmative action as president. In this and other matters he consciously followed the precedent set by nineteenth-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, a man of the right who supported reasonable and practical reform.
Schoen, himself apparently disaffected from the more left-leaning Democratic Party of the twenty-first century, thus finds in Nixon an exceptionally nimble and versatile politician, one who believed in the power of government and of compromise with the opposing party in the national interest whenever possible. Nixon, he argues, with much evidence to support his claim, governed as a centrist who lay aside the more partisan and divisive campaign rhetoric once the election season had passed. Such a notion seems quaint in the incessant political battles of our own time, as party leaders and candidates relentlessly appeal to their respective “bases” in the endless quest for votes and campaign donations.
Nixon did not create the fissures in American society in the 1960s and 1970s as Schoen at times implies—no one person could do that—but he did exploit them brilliantly in his campaigns for the presidency in 1968 and 1972. Moving to consolidate support among southern whites and northern working class whites and ethnics, he built a coalition of those envisioned as law-abiding, tax-paying Americans who answered their nation’s call to military service: his Silent Majority. More liberal Democrats after their party’s 1968 explosion were determined to rid the party—or at least dramatically reduce the influence—of the George Wallaces and Richard Daleys and those who supported them. While there was merit in that approach from a moral standpoint, this reconstruction was a political disaster for the Democrats in the short run, and Richard Nixon, with his historic landslide of 1972, was the immediate beneficiary.
Schoen is not blind to Nixon’s flaws, detailing (as does Thomas) Nixon’s machinations in the 1968 campaign to influence the course of peace talks in the Vietnam War to his advantage. Interference in the diplomatic negotiations of the United States by a private citizen has been a crime since the first years of the republic. Schoen sees Nixon’s actions here bordering on treason, making the Watergate scandal in comparison the third-rate burglary it originally was.
Schoen also explores Nixon’s efforts, begun almost immediately after he resigned the presidency, to rebuild his image and to contribute to the national dialogue, especially on national security and foreign policy matters. Freed from the machinations and intrigue of campaigning and governing which had tripped him up, he filled the unofficial post of elder statesman and foreign policy sage through his many books and articles.
And yet there remains something in Nixon that will always prevent him from being considered a classic American hero. And given how horribly he bungled the Watergate episode, it is also hard to see him as a clear-eyed political mastermind. Historians of the future will need all the help they can get in pondering the many paradoxes of Richard Nixon, and may find themselves turning to both these books. Like the medieval English king whose name he shared, Richard Nixon struggled to harness his considerable talents for constructive purposes. It may ultimately take another Shakespeare to do full justice to such a figure, soul and all.
Jason K. Duncan is Professor of History at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most recent book is John F. Kennedy: The Spirit of Cold War Liberalism (Routledge, 2014).