I haven’t been blogging so much recently but I have just finished reading a book, a phenomenal piece of work, a biography of Richard Milhous Nixon, by the highly acclaimed and prodigious biographer/historian, Conrad Black, and I just had to put ‘pen to paper’.
RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON – THE INVINCIBLE QUEST.
This biography is a bit of a tome, over a 1,000 pages, packed full of well referenced detail, and yet it is surprisingly easy to read – it is, at times, more like a fast-moving fictional thriller (but when it does seem like that, you say to yourself, “actually, you couldn’t make this stuff up!”).
If I was to be asked, “what angle did the author come at when considering the life of the enigmatic, mercurial, colossally misunderstood ex-President Richard Nixon, what was the author’s agenda?”, of course, I could only give my opinion and my opinion is that he simply wanted to be fair, that he wanted to give Nixon a fair hearing, that he wanted to put the life of the man into context, wanted to give readers an opportunity to reassess the man.
I felt that I was reading about a life, in context – the author gives credit where it is due but he comes down hard on Nixon when he thinks it appropriate. The author is neither counsel for the prosecution nor is he counsel for the defence or, perhaps, it makes more sense to say that the author is both and that the readership is the jury.
Before I continue, I should say that one of the difficulties, or one of my concerns, in blogging a review of this biography is that picking out examples of Nixon’s idiosyncrasies or character failings risks my undoing the great work that the author has done, ie that I might remove the context and reinforce the misunderstanding which the author has gone to such incredible lengths to put right. The work as a whole, the complete biography, all 1,050 pages, it’s a balanced reflection of the life of Richard Nixon and I hope that this blog review does not diminish the author’s achievement.
….and back to the blog….
As aforementioned, fairness, balance and context. An example. One of the accusations leveled over the years at Nixon is that he was an antisemite. I buy the author’s take on the accusation if only because what he says in Nixon’s defence makes sense and is understandable:
‘Nixon was very preoccupied by disloyalty and indiscretions in the government. When the New York Times downplayed a dramatic decline in unemployment figures and cited a Labor Department official, Harold Goldstein, as the source for such an opinion, Nixon had Goldstein transferred and went into one of his periodic rants against the evils of Jews. He made a point of exempting Kissinger, Safire, Burns, Leonard Garment (assistant counsel and a former law partner of Nixon and Mitchell’s from New York), and others, but demanded to know how many Jews there were in Goldstein’s section of the Labor Department. It was true that most Jewish-Americans were anti-Nixon, and his irritation with their rather reflexive hostility is understandable, but ethnic slurs delivered against millions of Americans by their president are, to say the least, distasteful’.
(Reeves, pp. 343-44; Frederick Malek memo to Haldeman, 7/9/71 – 9 July 1971).
“Like Truman, Nixon was friendly to Israel but did not need a great deal of provocation to toss off rather rude slurs against various ethnic groups, including Jews. To some extent, this was a way of inflicting unease on Kissinger, who was neither a religious Jew, a Zionist, nor a particular partisan of Israel, but it repaid him, Nixon imagined, for Kissinger’s snide indiscretions to members of the press and at the high table on the Georgetown social circuit about Nixon.’
The above quote appears at a point in the book when President Pompidou of France had just declined to sell Israel fifty Mirage fighter aircraft (having just sold 110 of the aircraft to Libya). Pompidou was on a visit to Washington and there were protests on the streets:
“Nixon postponed the sale that he had just verbally agreed two weeks before with Golda Meir and her ambassador in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, of twenty-five Phantoms and eighty Skyhawks to Israel.
In fact, the transaction was not delayed for long, but Nixon was concerned that these demonstrations were to some extent encouraged by the Israeli government. He liked Meir and Rabin, but he was scandalized at the notion that any power thought it could manipulate the United States, and wished to send a message to the American Jews, to whom he owed nothing electorally but who apparently thought they could influence an administration to which 90% of them had been ostentatiously hostile.”
I’m Jewish and live in Israel and if that was, indeed, Nixon’s thinking, I think it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable.
Above, I quoted from the book:
“Like Truman, Nixon was friendly to Israel but did not need a great deal of provocation to toss off rather rude slurs against various ethnic groups, including Jews…”
More context is needed:
Again, quoting the author, from the biography:
Frank and Hannah Nixon (RN’s parents) ‘would not hear of discriminating against African-Americans, Mexicans, Indians, Roman Catholics, or, as far as there were any in Whittier (where RN was brought up), Jews. They even, at Richard’s very strong urging, declined to expose a shoplifter (in their general store) and allowed her discreetly to repay, over a generous period, the balance owed for what she had taken’,
and, much later in the book:
‘Nixon, with no fanfare, had done more to break down official racism than any president in history, after Lincoln’s abolition of slavery and Lyndon Johnson’s enfranchisement of the African American….’
Nixon’s work, and success, in the field of civil rights and desegregation were substantial and extremely important to him – a lot of the book is devoted to Nixon’s triumph in this area.
The above, the accusations of antisemitism spewed at Nixon, which the author put into context, that is just one element of misunderstanding in the jigsaw which is the misinterpreted persona of Richard Nixon. The author also devoted a lot of the book to the subject of Vietnam – that was, for me, a lesson in itself and had it been lifted from this biography and housed in a book on its own, it would have been a terrific book on Vietnam!
As the author highlights, Nixon must be credited with success in so many varied fields:
Civil rights/human rights, desegregation,
Transforming the Republican Party from isolationist to internationalist,
He was the first President to cotton on to the importance of paying attention to U.S. national interest in containing communism in Western Europe and East Asia,
Nixon (and President Reagan) were THE American Cold War warriors,
Nixon was instrumental in the opening up of China
Nixon managed, despite the efforts of Congress/the Democrats to stifle his efforts, to extricate, at least with some US dignity in tact, the US from the mire of Vietnam (a mire, the blame for which, at least in terms of getting sucked in, the author lays squarely at President Johnson’s feet),
Nixon and Kissinger pretty well got Russia out of the Middle East and started the Israelis and the Arabs on the path to peace (whether they are on the path now, mid-2017, it’s a moot point!),
Nixon abolished ‘the draft’,
Nixon managed to control inflation (but it spirally out of control later on in his presidency as a result of increasing oil prices),
Crime statistics/numbers came down,
Nixon also made headway with the problems of illegal drug use, welfare reform and the environment.
Nixon had the foresight to give the heads up on problems he saw on the horizon, such as:
election campaign financing,
problems with health insurance,
Is there anything that you would expect to be in a biography of Richard M. Nixon to which I have not yet referred?
‘Nixon came to work on his first full day as president, January 21, 1969, at seven thirty, after only four hours’ sleep……The new president’s first appointment was with Henry Kissinger at seven-fifty.
This was the official beginning of an astonishing and historic relationship…’
The author has a substantial command of “the Queen’s English”, he’s a human thesaurus, he has a wonderful ability to find and use the perfect adjective, the perfect noun, as is needed in particular circumstances but I imagine that even he must have had to ponder for quite a while, must have struggled to conjure up just one or two adjectives to describe the Nixon/Kissinger relationship. I guess ‘astonishing’ is as good as any and ‘historic’ is factually correct. I wouldn’t presume to say that I could do any better, nor do I have to – needless to say, the author’s detailing of the relationship, the big picture and the minutiae, it is fascinating!
‘Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were very considerable men, and they rendered great service. In some ways their natures were complimentary, and Kissinger was right to refer to their desire to “walk alone.” But in other ways, they brought out each other’s worst qualities, especially paranoia, amorality, an unquenchable desire for praise and recognition, and, in Kissinger’s case, the obsequiousness of the courtier. It has become a truism of modern American history that they were almost symbiotic, despite their lack of personal rapport.’
That’s just to whet your appetite.
I referred above to the author’s command of the Queen’s English. His style of writing is a joy – it is beautiful. An example:
Re Nixon and Kissinger’s breakthrough in relations with China:
‘Nixon had an inspired idea and followed it through very effectively. Kissinger was a skilled executant. The cries of alarm from the American right were unjustified. And the implicit claim by Kissinger virtually to have transcended human culture and become an instant authority on the sacred wonders of the Middle Kingdom, conciliating heaven and earth, were an entertaining fraud. They were carried out with his usual energy and style. But in this case, the imposture was so ambitious, the imagery so overdone, that his presentational talents, based on his Strangelove accent and Teutonic syntax, almost caused him to stumble in his leap for immortality….’
Linguistically, I think that is glorious! The biography is a work of art!
Of course, a lot of the book focuses on Watergate – even if I were to try to summarise what the author says about it, his thoughts, his conclusions etc., I could not do justice to the work. In order for Watergate and Nixon’s role to be put into context, the author had to write in some detail and any summary I could construct would remove the context and that I must not do! The biography is a magnificent work and the less I say about it, the less specific I am, the less likely I am to spoil it for the reader.
How/what do I feel about Richard Nixon having read Conrad Black’s biography of the man?
I was deeply moved by the book. I took my time to read it as I was reading other books at the same time (obviously, not literally at the very same time!). I ‘lived’ with Nixon for a few months, I was with him throughout his childhood, his climbs, his successes, his highs, his immense struggles and his lows, his constantly being metaphorically punched, falling down but always dusting himself off, picking himself up and getting on with it….. I feel as if I got to know him personally. At the end, I sat motionless, desperately sad. I don’t know if this was the intention of the author but I feel that Nixon was, on balance, a victim (and, I repeat, the biography is in no way a white wash!!!). The Titanic kept coming to mind, the disaster, the resignation and everything that went with it, it simply should not have happened and it was difficult reading through the mistakes Nixon made, all the missed opportunities to drag himself out of the mess in which he found himself.
Nixon was a dichotomy, a trichotomy (is there a decacotomy??). The image I have built up by reading the biography is of a brilliant man, a highly intelligent man, a good man, a man with a big heart, a kind man who genuinely wanted to serve his country to help people, as opposed to as an act of self-aggrandisement
a man with serious character flaws, a man not just with a chip on his shoulder but with two chips, one on each shoulder, a man weighed down with insecurities, paranoia, a man who, even when he won the Presidency and the Oval Office was his, still felt insecure. In some respects, he was remarkably thick-skinned but, in other respects, he was immensely sensitive to the most innocuous of slights. He took everything so personally but, to be fair to Nixon, he invested a lot of himself, personally, in the lives of so many (which, ironically, added fuel to the fire which destroyed his presidency) so it’s understandable that he would expect loyalty and self-sacrifice from those in whom he invested so much of himself.
We can all learn so much from Nixon’s strength of character – he never allowed himself to be beat, he fought and fought and fought, he fell down so many times but he kept getting up, he kept fighting, like a boxer who just will not stay down on the canvas. Nixon achieved SO much and if it hadn’t been for Watergate, or if he had handled it better and had survived, he’d have achieved a lot more and would have gone down in history as one of the Great Presidents – he’d have been immortalized as a top tier President with the likes of Washington and Lincoln. As it is, the author still puts him in the second tier with Truman, Eisenhower etc. How, after the ignominy of the resignation, Nixon managed to rise from the ashes and become a respected world statesman, it defies belief but says so much about the man.
However, the fact that the author felt that this book is needed, it reinforces what we all know, that it can take years to build a good reputation and just a few minutes, or less, to destroy it. It seems to be part of the human condition that ‘we’ remember the bad in people more than the good – Nixon improved the quality of millions of people’s lives on his journey towards the Presidency, during his Presidency and he added value to the world after his Presidency but say the word ‘Nixon’ to people today and many – most? – young and old, will simply say the word ‘crook’ and/or Watergate. Maybe he was prescient, thinking of the future, not just his present, when he uttered the famous line in his defence, “I am not a crook”.
In the end, the partisanship of the ‘players’ in Nixon’s life, the selfishness, the stupidity, the failure to stand back and take stock, it was a giant self-inflicted wound, they (with colossal assistance thanks to Nixon’s mishandling of the scandal) shamed the Office of the President, they shamed America, they discarded a great President and denied the country and the American people a future that Nixon could have delivered. Nixon was no angel but he didn’t deserve what happened to him:
‘No interest and few involved individuals revisit this awful chapter in American history with clean hands.’
‘Rabbi Baruch Korff, chairman of what was called the National Citizens’ Committee for Fairness to the Presidency, took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times declaring that the media had “scandalized…brutalized…savaged [Nixon] day after day and night after night, and now they have come to bury him, draped in infamy.”’
In summary (of my blog review, not the biography), for the avoidance of doubt (just in case you still don’t know), I highly recommend this biography, a staggering work by Baron Black, but not just to those of you who are interested in the life of Nixon, facets of his life or politics generally. I think that we can all learn something from Nixon’s life, even be inspired by the successes he achieved by dint of sheer ambition, hard work, determination, focus, mind boggling resilience and, of course, his intelligence. His experiences, his up’s and down’s, by virtue of both the vagaries of life, circumstances beyond his control, and also the decisions he made, should resonate with many of us and inform the decisions we make now and in the future.