DYCHE | Being Nixon: A man divided - WDRB 41 Louisville News

DYCHE | Being Nixon: A man divided

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John David Dyche John David Dyche

By John David Dyche
WDRB Contributor

If you like history and politics and are still looking for a good summer book pick up Being Nixon: A Man Divided by veteran Washington reporter and editor Evan Thomas. It is a gripping, original, perceptive, and remarkably balanced portrait of Richard Nixon.

There are lots of books about the complex Nixon, America’s thirty-seventh president and the only one to resign the office. This one seems destined to become the definitive single volume biography suitable for mainstream readers and scholars alike.

Thomas begins with some fundamental propositions. The former include, “He ran on five national tickets and won four times, the last (1972) in one of the greatest presidential landslides ever. Only Franklin Roosevelt exceeded his electoral record."

Some of the latter are psychological, such as, “Hope and fear waged a constant battle in Nixon."

Still others are political opinion. For example, "Though Ronald Reagan usually gets the credit, it was Nixon who created the modern Republican Party, by breaking the New Deal coalition and siphoning off disaffected Democrats who sensed that the native Californian, born to the lower middle class, was more sensitive to their wants and needs than the liberal elitists Nixon so enthusiastically scorned."

There is a modern trend, even among many Republicans, of calling Nixon a liberal. “He was not," Thomas says, "but he was a crafty activist who loved to outflank and confound his foes."

The private Nixon may have lacked love, had a burning need to achieve perhaps as a way of earning it, and was motivated by class resentment. Thomas provides a poignant portrait of the politician as a young man.

The public Nixon lived a life of incredible accomplishment. From humble origins he rose quickly to the vice-presidency under Eisenhower after pursuing a Soviet agent in the State Department, Alger Hiss, and delivering the memorable Checkers Speech to stay on the ticket after stories about an alleged secret slush fund. 

Nixon had a successful tenure in the second spot highlighted by his performance when attacked by mobs during a South American trip and his Kitchen Debate against Soviet strongman Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. He lost the incredibly close 1960 presidential election to his friend and former congressional colleague John F. Kennedy and won kudos for not challenging dubious vote totals from Illinois and Texas.

After losing a bid for California’s governorship in 1962 he uttered his bitter Last Press Conference declaration to the press that, "You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore."  Yet he rebounded from that political nadir as a "new Nixon" and narrowly won the presidency in 1968.

His accomplishments in the office, says Thomas, were undeniably impressive:  "opening up China, achieving arms control with the Soviet Union, ending (if too slowly) the Vietnam War, desegregating the Southern schools, increasing benefits for the elderly and the disabled, creating the Environmental Protection Agency.” He also made provocative and perhaps visionary proposals for a minimum guaranteed income and universal health care coverage.

Nixon’s pre-Watergate presidency was perhaps best captured by his brilliant appeal to what he called the "great silent majority." Thomas calls the 1969 speech built around that phrase "a political masterstroke."

Yet when Nixon reached the pinnacle of political power and popularity his tragic flaws – "an obsession with smiting his enemies combined with an utter inability to confront his friends” – doomed him to disgrace in the Watergate scandal. 

But again he came back, this time as elder statesman. By his death on April 22, 1994, all the five then-living presidents honored him, and Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton even asked to deliver one of the eulogies.

This life story is well known, but this book stands out for its treatment of them. It is in some respects sympathetic and understanding, but in others appropriately scathing. The genius is in its effort to "be Nixon" and its rare, fair recognition of both the good and bad sides of this remarkable divided man.

Somewhat surprisingly given its subject matter, Being Nixon contains multiple "laugh out loud" moments. Most of them have to do with "RN’s" comical clumsiness.

Others involve Nixon’s relationships with his counselor Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, a pair of Harvard intellectuals he hired despite his visceral loathing for the breed. Moynihan’s quick wit and Kissinger’s expansive ego made for fascinating interactions with the brainy but insecure president.

There are also some incredibly moving scenes. Thomas consistently concludes his novelistic narrative chapters with descriptions of the effects political events were having on the Nixon family comprised of his widely misunderstood and even pitied wife Pat and his strong daughters Tricia and Julie.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the book deals with Watergate. A chapter entitled "The Ides of March," about that month in 1973, recounts the meetings in which young White House counsel John Dean informed Nixon of "a cancer – within – close to the presidency, that’s growing."

Watergate grew out of Nixon’s bitter belief that the Kennedys and other Democrats had used dirty tricks against him and his determination not to be damaged or outdone on that front again. Even as he strove for noble goals he lost all perspective and became the appalling, profane, and pathetic character one hears in the still shocking tapes.

About Nixon’s extended failure to appreciate the extent of the Watergate scandal Thomas says, "It is hard to explain this failure of judgment, the most critical mistake Nixon ever made." His chapters vividly depict a man who had lost his moral compass and a president who was very poorly served by his staff, no member of which ever voiced clear and strong resistance when clearly called for.

For older readers this book is like re-living tumultuous times. For younger readers it is about as close as they can come to experiencing those times as they were and understanding the enigmatic Nixon.

(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political columnist for WDRB.com. His e-mail is jddyche@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)

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