Being Nixon: A Man Divided
By Evan Thomas
640 pages, $35
By Michael D. Langan
“Wait! Wait! It’ll get better!” Richard Nixon remarked to his family and friends as they got up to walk out on a bad movie at Camp David. Nixon watched hundreds of films in his presidential downtime. He was a true optimist who was often defeated by his own inadequacies.
Still, his outburst showed his Quaker optimism and resilience in a life marked by triumph and trauma.
Why the continuing interest in Richard Nixon? The Nixon tapes have their historical value. Many remember the story of Watergate, that bungled burglary, and Evan Thomas, longtime Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, gives the debacle its perverse prominence.
Thomas’ “Being Nixon” is described as a “three-dimensional portrait of a complex man filled with both light and dark …” But there is more than just the dark side of the Nixon presidency. And Evan Thomas gives a balanced appreciation of the man, his troubles and his triumphs.
As Thomas puts it, “anyone listening to the White House Tapes would wonder about (Nixon’s) moral sensibility as he discussed hush money with John Dean.” Believe it or not, Thomas tells us that “Nixon was too shy, too trusting to confront his own staff on exactly what happened and who was to blame.”
Released the same day was New York Times writer and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tim Weiner’s Nixon book. It’s called “One Man Against The World, The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.” Weiner’s book is advertised as “An eye-opening study of Richard Nixon’s booze-soaked, paranoid White House years.”
On the face of it, Thomas’ book seems more understanding. But some may not want a balanced biography of Richard M. Nixon, when one can have the truly disgusting behavior of “Tricky Dick” described by Weiner, that comes “40-plus years after Watergate” and contains private presidential behavior, we are told in a lurid press promise, “even worse that what we knew.”
Nixon has passed into history and others earlier have written about him. They include Garry Wills, Tom Wicker, Roger Morris, Richard Reeves and many more.
So after all these years, is there still muck to rake? Or is there room for a considered account of the man?
The answer to both questions appears to be “yes.”
Here is how Evan Thomas describes Richard Nixon.
• “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.’ ”
• “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.”
• “On the other hand, he was not afraid to govern. It is a little known fact that President Nixon integrated the public schools of the South. When Nixon took office, only 8 percent of African-American students attended integrated schools in the six states of the Deep South. But by 1972, 70 percent did – thanks largely to effective behind-the-scenes jawboning by the White House, with Nixon’s personal engagement and participation. (‘Desegregation,’ Nixon told his aides, ‘that has to happen now.’) Nixon’s instincts were conservative, and he hated government bureaucrats, but he liked to confound his Big Government enemies. It was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970…”
Nixon’s relationship with the first lady, Pat, was mostly warm and solicitous, even tender, according to Evan Thomas. She clearly loved him and was more than “plastic Pat,” as the press portrayed her. She knew how to give good advice and stay just off to the side, quite a different position than later first ladies who felt they were required to share the limelight.
And then there was Watergate. It doomed the Nixon presidency. Nixon didn’t realize what he had done by sponsoring this debacle until the very end, according to Thomas. This seems hard to believe, to me. Nixon was the original “yellow pad” guy, making assessments of pluses and minuses all his life.
After Watergate, Quaker optimism returned to Nixon. Even as he fulminated, there was the prospect of making a return.
“Always remember, others may hate you,” he said. “… but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” he told his weeping staffers in his final speech in the East Room of the White House. Then the soon to be ex-president boarded Marine One, turned, and thrust out his arms in the V-for-victory salute.”
Once again, an example of the “Wait, wait, it’ll get better” Nixon.
But this venality was too much for many Americans. They didn’t like a crook in the White House.
Of course Nixon giving his “V-for-victory-salute” wasn’t the end. In private life Nixon wrote nine books and lived out his life without much fanfare.
A Secret Service agent friend who protected Nixon after his presidency told me, “He was a complicated personality. But he was rather endearing and tried to enjoy his life quietly and without too much of a burden on the American taxpayers. He gave up his Secret Service detail several years before he died.”
Michael D. Langan entered federal service in 1984. Among other posts, he was senior adviser to the Under Secretary for Enforcement at the U.S. Treasury Department. Until its takeover by Homeland Security, Treasury was responsible for the oversight of the Secret Service.