Nixon's Fate, and Ours
Presidencies come and presidencies go, but Richard Nixon we have with us always, an abiding point of reference in our national life. That a Broadway play based, improbably, on post-presidential interviews with David Frost from 30 years ago could win a Tony award in 2007, thirteen years after Nixon’s death, attests to his imperishability as an icon, at least in some quarters. Even more broadly indicative are the ease and frequency with which his memory has been invoked thus far in the 2008 presidential campaign.
The mentions have been largely unfavorable, which is not surprising, even if it is conservative writers who are most often making them. “A Richard Nixon revival infects both parties’ primaries,” wrote George F. Will, referring in part to Mike Huckabee’s mixing of “ostentatious piety” with “oblique nastiness,” a blend thought to have been perfected by our 37th President. The syndicated columnist Michael Gerson has characterized the former mayor of New York City as “R. Milhous Giuliani,” a leader presumably resembling Nixon in being a faux conservative, “a talented man without an ideological compass, mainly concerned with the accumulation of power.”
Given the ideological slipperiness of her campaign, Hillary Clinton has made an especially fine target for Nixon comparisons. The columnist Robert Novak judged her operatives to be playing “Nixon tricks” when they hinted at scandalous information about Barack Obama which they had high-mindedly chosen “not to use.” John Ellis observed that, like Nixon, Clinton was a fundamentally “unlikable” candidate with “resentments close to the surface,” who could win election only by showing the world she was “as formidable as Tricky Dick.” And so forth.
Such uses of Nixon’s name suggest a powerful national consensus: we all know what the word “Nixonian” means. Yet that consensus is a superficial one, grounded in caricatures of his personality rather than reasoned assessments of his deeds. In fact, there is no modern American President whose reputation remains more unsettled. The definiteness implied in the universal abuse of his name is contradicted by the increasingly nuanced and even sympathetic judgments that scholars now render upon his career.
Any honest accounting of that career must still reckon with the indelible stain of Watergate and its damaging results, both for the nation and for the presidency itself. But historians and others point increasingly to his undoubted achievements in the realm of foreign policy, such as the dramatic restructuring of relations with China and the Soviet Union, and his many domestic-policy innovations—including in the areas of environmental protection, civil rights, and welfare reform—all undertaken during times of economic turbulence, international upheaval, and bitter internal political division. If somehow Watergate could be whited-out of the picture—a retooling of history that would likely involve a more favorable conclusion to the Vietnam war as well—he might even rank among the near-great American Presidents. But of course nothing of the sort is possible. Any evaluation of Nixon that fails to weigh his grievous faults is doomed to be just as inadequate as one that considers nothing else.
Nixon himself claimed that 50 years would have to pass before anything like a fair evaluation of his administration would be possible. He was probably right. The weight of public opinion, together with the mountain of books and articles written about him both during his tenure and after, slicing and analyzing his personality mercilessly, has been enormous. The venom he aroused is far from gone; there is a real desire, in some quarters, to have a Dick Nixon to kick around forever. Yet, with the passage of time, we can begin to see in his presidency not merely the confluence of a peculiar man with a peculiar moment but a moment when the presidency as an institution became subjected to stresses of a kind and on a scale not seen before, encountering problems that are still very much with us today.
This is why Conrad Black’s lengthy new biography, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full,* is such a welcome addition to the vast literature on its subject. Not because of any new facts it might offer, but because of the perspective provided by the re-framing effects of subsequent events. Moreover, the book is a most enjoyable read, moving confidently through a wide swath of American political and social history and unfolding with a smoothness and felicity that belie the subtlety of its analysis.
Nuanced but assured in its judgments, and refreshingly insightful in its psychological portraiture, Black’s Nixon seeks to give us, as its subtitle implies, a fuller measure of the man. As such, it will displease the brigades of Nixon scholars, who will likely ignore it. But the book’s merit ultimately stands upon the coherence and plausibility of its account of its central subject, and in that regard Black is hard to equal.
In 1,000-plus pages, Black covers the full span of a very full life that stretched from before World War I to the first term of the Clinton presidency. High points along the way include Nixon’s schooling, his work as a California attorney and Washington bureaucrat, his wartime service in the Navy, his many political campaigns, his service as Vice President and President, his descent into the “inferno” of Watergate and resignation, and his remarkable post-presidential “transfiguration” as a prolific author and globe-trotting wise man.
As he tells his story, Black firmly flicks away various misconceptions—Pat Nixon was not a “Stepford wife,” the “slush fund” that gave rise to the 1952 “Checkers speech” was not improper, Nixon did not plan the infamous break-in at the Watergate, and most of the literature on Watergate itself is “self-serving claptrap”—and gradually fills in a compelling portrait of Nixon’s sprawling and fascinating career. He also gives us an explanation of Nixon’s inner life that is intimate and acute without being presumptuous or fanciful:
Nixon thought that he was doomed to be traduced, double-crossed, unjustly harassed, misunderstood, underappreciated, and subjected to the trials of Job, but that by the application of his mighty will, tenacity, and diligence he would ultimately prevail. . . . He seemed ordinary, and attracted the support of tens of millions of ordinary people, but he was not ordinary. He was extremely intelligent, cunning, aloof, unknowable, and demiurgically determined, all masquerading and lurking behind a somewhat ordinary exterior and often banal or even uncouth articulation.
There are two especially notable virtues of Black’s account. One is his depiction of the unrelenting hardness of Nixon’s early life as the son of a struggling grocer in Whittier, California, and the way he was forced to wring his opportunities and successes out of a turnip by dint of extremely hard work. As a high-school student, he rose every day at 4 a.m. and drove to the Seventh Street market in Los Angeles, where he bought vegetables, delivered them to his father’s business, washed and displayed them, and then went for a full day of school, at which he was always an outstanding student. Such dutiful burdens and responsibilities were the abiding theme of a remarkably joyless and careworn youth. Yet we also see how they fueled his immense drive and his characteristic opportunism, and how he could imagine himself as a stand-in for people without pedigree, the ones he would later call the Silent Majority.
This early experience was, in brief, the source of Nixon’s populist streak. “Even when he achieved positions too exalted for general attention to the less fortunate,” Black writes, “his heart and his thoughts . . . were always for those who had little, who struggled, who had been shortchanged. To some degree he identified with them.” That this sensibility might lead him as easily to resentment and near-paranoia as to compassion is easy to understand; it is in fact the chief liability of all populism. Such a sensibility, at once hard and sentimental, would be reinforced again and again by the professional reversals of his later life.
Second, and somewhat paradoxically, Black shows that from very early on, Nixon had an instinct for Republican coalition-building, for splitting differences and bridging antagonisms by working both sides of the ideological street. As early as December 1945, when Lieutenant Commander Nixon, USN, was gearing up for a campaign against five-term Congressman Jerry Voorhis, he not only was taking red-meat tactical advice from the famously rough political operative Murray Chotiner but was in touch with Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, a quintessential liberal Republican whom he had met in the South Pacific and through whom he sought to attract other liberals to his side. The Republicans had been bedeviled for nearly four decades by a liberal-conservative divide, beginning with the split between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and later continued in the split between Rockefeller liberals and Goldwater conservatives. Nixon would make a political career out of walking a political tightrope between the two sides.
It was, as Black observes, “a tight-rope that he never fell off.” Balancing an assertive, realistic, and strongly anti-Communist national-security policy against consistently moderate social and economic policies, Nixon was always able to put together strong, though not always winning, electoral combinations and eventually to bring his embattled party within hailing distance of majority status.
Not all of this balancing can be attributed to mere calculation, and much of it has been willfully misunderstood. The conventionally disparaging emphasis on Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” for example, leaves out the fact that “with no fanfare,” as Black observes, he did more through his school-desegregation initiatives “to break down official racism than any President in history,” excepting only Lincoln’s abolition of slavery and Lyndon Johnson’s extension of the franchise. This accomplishment, “like a number of Nixon’s acts of selfless idealism, such as his refusal to contest seriously the 1960 presidential election,” went “largely unrecognized, until historians started to unearth the facts.”
This may go a little too far. In school-desegregation matters Nixon acted reluctantly, under the compulsion of Supreme Court decisions; and the absence of fanfare, and indeed the careful appearance of reluctance, were reflections of political necessity, not political modesty, in a man who needed to hold on to his right wing. Similarly, his unwillingness to contest the 1960 election, although surely patriotic, was no less surely conditioned by his awareness that he would forfeit his career if the effort failed and gain a prize no longer worth having if it succeeded—considerations that ought to have occurred to Al Gore in 2000.
But mention of the 2000 election suggests the possibility that, far from being an historical outlier, Richard Nixon has indeed come to embody the paradigmatic problems of the modern American presidency—precisely because he was the first man to experience them in full force.
Historians of the postwar presidency generally invoke FDR as the gold standard of leadership, and view his successors as languishing in his shadow. But chances are that, for the foreseeable future, our Presidents will have to operate within a nearly evenly divided electorate, with political debate driven by hard and vocal (and disproportionately influential) ideological minorities, soft silent majorities, weak and fractious parties, and hostile, irresponsible mass media. Even an act of war directed against the nation, we now know, will not insure a lasting rallying of all branches of government, let alone the nation.
The tasks of the Nixon presidency, and the fate it met, thus form the shadow that falls across the future of the office, for Republicans and Democrats alike. The tasks include an ability to walk tightropes as well as he did, and survive the withering fire of opposition from all sides. Of Nixon’s successors, both Republican and Democratic, only Ronald Reagan did not entirely succumb to this problem. Jimmy Carter gained the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 1976 by splitting the difference in his own party, and yet the result was a foreign policy too weak and vacillating to satisfy Republicans and hawkish Democrats, and a domestic policy too conservative to satisfy liberals. George H.W. Bush, although a quintessentially Nixonian politician in many respects, alienated liberals with his campaign tactics, and never gained the confidence of economic and social conservatives with his governing policies.
Bill Clinton, a more skillful tightrope-walker than either of his immediate predecessors, set himself against liberal icons (as in the “Sister Souljah” episode) and embraced carefully selected conservative social policies—so much so that his popularity flourished at the expense of his own party until his rampant personal indiscretions forced him, as an act of sheer political survival, into the arms of the same hard Left against which he had run to begin with. As for George W. Bush, he has consistently sought to shift the ideological balance between the parties by coopting liberal positions on race, Hispanic immigration, entitlements, and the like, only to reap bitterness and distrust from conservatives and liberals alike. A similar fate would no doubt befall Hillary Clinton if she succeeded to the office.
But the difficulty of presidential tightrope-walking is but one of the challenges in which Nixon pioneered. His shadow very much extends to the way his presidency ended. At the time, his being forced from office was hailed as a great triumph of constitutional government. But its legacy has been more complicated than that. In a country with hard political divisions, in which the immense size and scope of the national government means that there is always an enormous amount at stake, the temptation has become irresistible to decide issues through litigious or extra-political means, including the politics of scandal, or, as Bill Clinton once put it, the politics of personal destruction.
To be sure, democratic politics is never a pristine thing, and demagoguery is hardly a new invention. And again to be sure, Nixon, like Clinton, was on more than just the receiving end of the politics of personal destruction. But one needs to look past that fact and think about the condition of the political world as we now find it.
The criminalization of policy differences and the broad stigmatization and demonization of political opponents have been an increasingly important element of our national politics since Nixon’s time. Indeed, they are now permanent features of the political landscape. Every President since Nixon has had to deal with them, and to cope with the new readiness to leak even the most sensitive information on a near-routine basis, and to invoke the tools of impeachment, congressional investigations, special prosecutors, and all the rest. As the outrageous treatment of Scooter Libby indicates, there seems no end in sight to this folly. Conrad Black’s Nixon should make us stop and wonder what we have been doing to ourselves.
This brings us to the Nixonesque events in the life of the author himself. As all the world knows, Conrad Black is not only a writer but also a media baron, and lately a man convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice (by the same U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Libby) and sentenced to six and a half years in prison. Should that fact, whatever one thinks of the justice of his conviction, dictate the way one understands his book?
Yes, emphatically declared the reviewer in the (London) Times Literary Supplement, who found the book animated by a “highly personalized agenda” that “converts a soi-disant work of history into a prolonged partisan plea on behalf of a man as misunderstood, underestimated, and wronged as the author evidently considers himself to be.” What is packaged as a “balanced” portrait of Nixon, the reviewer concluded, is better understood as “Conrad Black’s apologia for Richard Nixon”—and, by extension, himself.
Well, readers will have to judge for themselves, but an apologia this book most certainly is not. There is enough of the sinister and disagreeable Nixon in Black’s pages to satisfy all but diehard Nixon-haters. (“There is room for debate,” Black nicely concludes, “whether he dishonored, or merely demeaned, the presidency.”) True, Black’s own experiences may have produced in him what might be called an elective affinity for his subject. Equally true is that Black’s experiences are themselves hard to separate from the more general condition that has come to afflict our public life—a condition that first began to reach ominous proportions during the Nixon presidency and that is now everywhere in evidence. In that sense, he would be justified in seeing his own situation somewhat mirrored in that of his subject.
But there is also much evidence that Black sees his subject clear and distinct. It is hard to comprehend how, in the midst of his well-publicized trials, Black was able to produce a book of such high caliber. All the more impressive is that the elective affinity of author for subject never skews Black’s judgment of Nixon, which is harsh in all the places where historical accuracy demands that it be, but generous and humane in places where those qualities are deserved but have been lacking in the past.
For Black, Nixon was “the champion of the average person, the decent toiler, the silent majority,” the man who led “a perpetual revolt against the stylish, the facile and fashionable, the well born, all those . . . for whom things seemed to come easily.” I am not aware of any biographical account of Conrad Black that would suggest this is a self-portrait. But it cuts to the heart of who Nixon was, and why so many hated him, and why so many more cannot forget him. That is a great deal for any biographer to accomplish.
* PublicAffairs, 1152 pp., $40.00.