Nixon’s Greatest Moments

R.W. Johnson

  • Nixon: A Life by Jonathan Aitken
    Weidenfeld, 633 pp, £25.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 297 81259 9

Winding up his efforts in the 1954 mid-term elections Vice-President Richard Nixon handed an aide the notes of his last campaign speech and said: ‘You might like to keep it as a souvenir. It’s the last one, because after this I am through with politics.’ Suffering one of his periodic depressions, Nixon had considered the matter with his wife Pat, and decided that he should retire from politics once his term as Vice-President finished in 1956. Except, of course, that he hadn’t really decided anything. Typically, he wrote himself a little memo on the subject headed ‘Reasons to get out’, the reasons divided into Personal and Political, with the main personal reason being ‘Wife – (columns, personal, staff hurts)’, meaning that Pat didn’t like the newspaper comment or imagined sleights from Ike’s staff. Under Political came a set of points:

1. Politician must be able not to take issues to heart – fight and forget – twist and turn – I live each one – and hard ones.

2. Don’t like social life, the prestige.

3. Some convince selves [they are] indispensable – but not the case.

4. Therefore – no reason to stay in – unless – you

(a) Enjoy it – personal

(b) Need the job (economic, money)

(c) Job needs you.

The memo repays study. Note the redundancies: you have a section called ‘Personal’, then under ‘Wife’ one of the reasons is ‘personal’, while under ‘Political’ we get ‘Enjoy it – personal’; or the peculiar need to explain to himself, a working politician, that not taking issues to heart could also be described as ‘fight and forget’ or ‘twist and turn’. Take 4(b): why, in a memo to oneself, does one need to explain ‘Need the job’ at all, let alone have to add ‘money’, as if ‘economic’ was unclear. Note, too, the self-pity (‘staff hurts’ and ‘hard ones’) and concomitant self-glorification: para 4 is supposed to have ‘you’ as the subject but by 4(c) this has irresistibly been turned around. Nixon, it seems, felt good telling himself that he didn’t like ‘the prestige’ and that he wasn’t indispensable, but having got these self-praises out of the way, 4(c) sneaks in to negate para 3 entirely.

What the memo reveals above all is Nixon’s wild uncertainty about who he was, a man with no still centre, not at ease with himself, a self-made man who had conquered the world thanks to hard work and note-making, but who was way out of touch with his own feelings. Hence the pathetic belief that the way to sort out those feelings was to use study methods and write a memo to himself. And yet it’s no good – the feelings remain so remote that he writes a heading for ‘Wife’, where an ordinary man would surely have written ‘Pat’. In the end the memo is inconclusive, and when Eisenhower did eventually try to dump Nixon from the ticket in 1956 he fought like a tiger to stay.

The same wild veering was apparent when he became President. The results were surprising and sometimes good. Nixon came to office as the friend of the hard Right and then turned turtle and imposed wage and price controls. The natural ally of corner-cutting businessmen, he emerged as the most progressive environmentalist since Teddy Roosevelt, pushing through a mass of anti-pollution legislation, creating the Environmental Protection Agency and showing an absolute passion for parks. A poor boy, he had known how much the less fortunate depend on accessible parks: ‘when in doubt,’ he said of the release of Federal land, ‘make a park out of it.’ His Southern strategy depended on a careful courtship of racist whites, but his own principles on race were unimpeachably liberal. When he came to office – 15 years after the Supreme Court ruling against school segregation – only 5.2 per cent of black children were in integrated schools. By the end of his first term this figure had soared to 90 per cent. Above all, Nixon was the Cold Warrior who broke the long freeze with China and brought about detente with the USSR. Not surprisingly, neither the Chinese nor the Russians ever forgot: throughout the worst years of his disgrace he remained an honoured guest in Beijing and 13 years after the President’s resignation the Soviet Ambassador to the US was still singling out his term in office as ‘the most fruitful and productive in the post-war years’.

This upside to the Nixon picture is much to the fore in Aitken’s adoring biography. It is a strange coming-together: Aitken, the hereditary Tory, born with a large silver spoon in his mouth, and the lower-class Californian Nixon, engaged all his life in a furious class struggle against Ivy Leaguers. When Aitken hosted Nixon’s post-Watergate British tour, he had to work overtime to protect him from the slights of the Establishment: the Government boycotted the visit, the Foreign Office declared Nixon persona non grata, and even retired Tories like Macmillan (‘I couldn’t face it ... I was too fond of Jack’) refused to meet him. Greeted on a visit to Oxford by a hostile crowd of American students singing ‘Jail to the Chief’, Nixon characteristically snarled: ‘Rhodes Scholars from Ivy League schools, I’ll bet.’ It never seems to occur to Aitken that, transposed to America, he would be just the sort of person Nixon would hate.

One can, however, see what draws him to Nixon. Aitken is himself a somewhat raffish, racy figure. He has always had the money to take risks; and no sooner was he elected as a young MP than he immediately got into an enormous D-notice row with the Government. Precisely because Nixon has no still centre, because he has never known who he is, because he is in some respects a wild chancer, he has always had an element of danger about him. Seymour Hersh, in his biography of Kissinger, tells how Nixon and Henry decided at the outset that the way to play the Chinese was to put it about that Nixon was mad, that he might order a nuclear strike at any time: this was, after all, how the West saw the Chinese and it led to a certain exaggerated respect. It’s worth reflecting that no other President would have gone in for such a strategy and that if the Chinese were even half as mad as the West feared they were, it might well have had catastrophic results. This tale doesn’t feature in Aitken’s book, but one suspects that there is not a little danger in his own make-up – perhaps he wishes there was more.

Aitken is sometimes frank about the great defects of Nixon’s character, but overall he wishes to exonerate him from the worst of what he’s been blamed for, including Watergate. He rightly points out that Nixon was hardly the first to play dirty: as Attorney-General, Bobby Kennedy harassed Nixon with an IRS inquiry, a weapon Nixon later made his own, while LBJ wiretapped not merely Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell, but Nixon and his running mate, Agnew, too. More blame is laid off on bad advisers, especially Mitchell: ‘by encouraging the macho side of Nixon he created an atmosphere in which bad judgments were too easily made. Nixon the hater; Nixon the profane; Nixon the furious; Nixon the unscrupulous player of hardball ... it was the arrival of John Mitchell as the strong peer relationship in his life [which brought these things out].’

Most of all, Aitken relies on Nixon’s own expressions of ignorance about the Watergate break-in. When he first heard the news ‘he was amazed. Then he sat down and laughed about it. He said two or three times: What in God’s name were we doing there?’ Aitken lets by without comment the fact that Nixon (a) thought the burglary of the Democrats’ HQ a humorous exploit and (b) immediately accepted that ‘we’ were responsible, despite his torrent of later denials. What brought Nixon down, Aitken argues, was not the break-in but the cover-up – which is not obviously true. How exactly would a President who made law and order one of his principal planks explain on TV that senior White House staff were authorising burglary? As for his alleged ignorance, even Nixon accepted some responsibility for the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst after Ellsberg had embarrassed the Administration with the leaking of the Pentagon Papers.

Aitken thinks a comparison can be made between Nixon on Watergate and Henry II’s ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ which led, almost inadvertently, to the murder of Becket. But quite apart from any other differences, Nixon loved low politics and intrigue, loved talking about them, loved plotting. As his closest adviser, John Erlichman, put it:

Nixon had an energetic, constantly churning mind which was forever throwing nut a flow of ideas, some good, some awful ... It was our job to direct that part of the flow which could be full of disgust and divisiveness ... But in time, it became apparent that Nixon had found a way of get ting around us. If I turned one of his bad ideas down, that would not be the end of it. He would rummage around in his bag of personnel until he found the guy who would do this or that dastardly deed. Someone who would salute him and say, ‘Yes sir, Mr President,’ and go out and get it done.

Nixon’s great favourite in this was Chuck Colson, who shared his love of scheming and was ruthless enough to execute any plan. ‘Chuck’s got the balls of a brass monkey,’ was Nixon’s admiring assessment. He and Colson would habitually sit drinking whisky and scheming late into the night – hatching the creation of bogus Democrat groups or spying on Teddy Kennedy’s sexual activities. Nixon’s pleasure when such coups were brought off was huge: it was a game he loved. As Colson wryly noted, ‘Those who say that I fed the President’s darker instincts are only 50 per cent correct, because 50 per cent of the time he was feeding my darker instincts.’ This was not much like Henry II.

After Nixon’s defeat by Kennedy, many wrote him off; someone who never did was that shrewdest of judges, Charles de Gaulle, who repeatedly startled American visitors by predicting that Nixon was bound to become President, that he had a date with destiny. Aitken records this fact but seems not to understand it. De Gaulle cared little for the political skills of glad-handing (which Americans assumed to be paramount) but respected the unusual combination he saw in Nixon of intellectual depth and passionate conservative patriotism. For de Gaulle was only too well aware that internationally, as well as locally, the conservatives were often the stupid party. And where was this truer than in America? Nixon was thus a real find. That Nixon, too, had a sense of this contradiction seems clear from one of his early memos to President Reagan: ‘Putting it bluntly, the problem that all conservative administrations face is that those who are loyal are not bright and those who are bright are not loyal.’ One wonders how the distinctly unbright Reagan took that, assuming his advisers didn’t judge it too long for him to read.

In many ways Nixon was the most impressive of America’s post-war Presidents: no one else made it up from the bottom of the social heap the way he did, no one else worked as hard or read as much. But it’s not hard to see how his fatal flaws of character developed. His father, Frank Nixon, who had run away from home at 13, was a ne’er-do-well veteran of dozens of occupations, a man of volcanic tempers and dogged, ignorant beliefs. His five sons lived permanently on edge, fearful of the next explosion – the young Richard the most fearful of all, going to almost any lengths to avoid confrontation. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Frank Nixon killed two of his sons. An early Californian food faddist, he bought a cow and insisted that the family drink its unpasteurised milk. Even when one of his sons soon died of TB, he refused to have the cow tested. When a second son caught it, Frank’s principled objection to socialised medicine led him to decide that the dying boy should not use the perfectly good free local hospital. Instead he bankrupted the family in order to pay for expensive (and useless) private sanatoria.

The illness and death of these two brothers overshadowed Richard’s entire childhood. He responded by retiring ever deeper into his shell and studying ever harder at school. Consciously at least, he seems to have resisted the knowledge that his father was mad and ruthless enough to sacrifice his children’s lives in the way that he had, but the emasculating effects of living with such a father doubtless account for Nixon’s desperate search for a machismo and male acceptance he never quite achieved. His school studies centred neurotically on a search for male greatness: for heroes and heroic rhetoric. He often stunned teachers and contemporaries by his ability to recite huge tracts of Shakespeare, Lincoln, Kipling and the like.

Emotionally he focused on his Quaker mother, Hannah, whom he regarded all his life as a saint. ‘He never let us forget his mother had to scrub bedpans,’ a White House staffer recorded nearly fifty years later, doubtless not realising the bitter weight of the reproach against Nixon’s father implied by this memory. ‘He felt he owed everything to his mother,’ his therapist Dr Hutschnecker remarked: ‘his superior intellect, his success and his ideals. The driving force of his life was that he wanted to prove to his mother that he was a good boy. He could not be a loser because that would mean he was letting his mother down.’ Yet it’s difficult to believe that Nixon got the warmth he needed from his mother, whose Quaker cult of privacy was carried to such entity lengths that she would say all her prayers inside a broom cupboard rather than let her family see her kneeling down. Nixon’s praise of her is touchingly unauthentic:

she never indulged in the present-day custom, which I find nauseating, of hugging and kissing her children or others for whom she had great affection ... Only one of those rather pathetic Freudian psychiatrists would suggest that her love of privacy made her private even from her sons. She could communicate far more than others could with a lot of sloppy talk and even more sloppy kissing and hugging – I can never remember her saying to any of us ‘I love you’ – she didn’t have to!

It is hardly surprising, given the parents he had, that Nixon was never at ease with himself, was unpopular at school, was jilted by his chosen girl, and was careful ultimately to marry down – to attach himself to someone who could not but be grateful for his favours. Little surprise, too, that his pursuit of compensatory academic and political success had a decidedly frantic edge to it, that he was a sexual prude, that he would undergo any amount of humiliation on the sports field or in the college dormitory to gain acceptance, that he hero-worshipped his football coach; and generally speaking made his the doctrine of win, win, win at all costs. For all his voracious reading he never became an intellectual. As Aitken shrewdly comments, ‘he lived off ideas rather than for ideas.’ At bottom what he always wanted was the quick fix that would guarantee ‘greatness’.

The largely unnoticed watershed in Nixon’s life was his decision to volunteer for war service with the Navy. A successful young lawyer in the civil service, he could easily have secured deferment either on occupational grounds or as a Quaker, as his parents wished. But for a young man desperately in search of manhood, this was hardly an option. He proved an excellent officer, moulding his men into a team and at last achieving what he had most wanted – complete male acceptance. His men, a polyglot cross-section of the American working class, thought he was wonderful. As Aitken points out, the rapport between Nixon and the silent majority of blue-collar America was born in the Navy. Here, at last, Nixon could be a leader, could look and sound like ‘one of us’ to his men, while having the brains and vision to be ‘one of them’. What Aitken fails to note is the remarkable change brought about by his experience in the Navy. Much of his Quaker reserve was cast aside and he emerged a hard-swearing poker-player (gambling provided a regular income) who, alone among American politicians, never thereafter liked to mention God or his religion.

In 1946 Nixon swept to victory in the third safest Democratic seat in the country, thanks to a red-baiting but also utterly professional campaign against an outclassed opponent. Oddly, as Aitken artfully shows, one result of this was the beginning of a lasting relationship with his freshman Democrat opposite number on the House Education and Labour Committee, John F. Kennedy. The two shy, clever young men found they had much in common apart from the Navy and spent a fair amount of time together. JFK sent Nixon books, friendly letters, invited him to his wedding, and even supplied the embarrassed Nixon with phone numbers of young women in Paris when he heard Nixon was going there. In 1950 JFK handed Nixon a $1,000 campaign contribution from his father for the bitter Senate fight against Helen Douglas. No less ironic is the way Nixon, as Vice-President, rushed to visit an apparently dying JFK in hospital in 1954, prompting an effusive letter of thanks from Jackie (‘I don’t think there is anyone in the world he thinks more highly of than he does you’), or the fact that he then put the Vice-Presidential suite at the disposal of the convalescent Senator Kennedy. At this point it looked as if Nixon had pulled ahead of JFK for ever, but the 1960 campaign had the effect of reinforcing the negative view each man had of the other. Interestingly, JFK’s famous dismissal of Nixon (‘no class’) stuck at the time, but Nixon’s view of JFK as a spoiled Harvard womaniser is now the more widely shared. Even so, JFK was so unsure of his margin of victory in 1960 that he was willing to offer Nixon an ambassadorship to help sweeten the pill. Nixon behaved well, declining the offer but also refusing to ask for a recount on the grounds that to do so would only undermine the credibility of the electoral process.

Nixon’s most important political relationship, however, was with Eisenhower, whom he backed from the start to be President. As the junior Senator from California, his calculation was astute. If Governor Warren of California won the 1952 nomination, he would hardly want a running mate from the same Slate and if Taft won it, he was likely to pick William Knowland, the senior California Senator. Since he was determined to become someone’s running mate – quite regardless of State loyalty or ideological preference – Nixon worked to ditch the chances of both Warren and Taft. Ike was comically naive: asked on the eve of his nomination whom he would like as his running mate, he gawped: ‘Gee, I don’t know! I thought the Convention decided that.’ Nixon’s name, inevitably, emerged.

Then came the somewhat manufactured scandal over Nixon’s ‘secret’ campaign funds which led Ike to dither over dropping him from the ticket. Nixon, finding Ike’s indecision unbearable, appalled his patrician senior by saying to him: ‘There comes a time in matters like this when you’ve either got to shit or get off the pot.’ There followed the famous ‘Checkers’ speech in which, with unconsciously comic effect, Nixon suggested a general baring of the truth about financial support on the part of all candidates – horrifying Ike, who had much to hide in this respect. In general, Ike seems to have found Nixon a sort of useful alien: hard-working but coarse, callow and immature. Ike, too, clearly fell that Nixon had ‘no class’ and spent much of his Presidency still wondering whether to ditch him. Nixon’s relationship with his own father had been too troubled for him to find this pseudo-father manageable – hence, doubtless, his self-pitying but never seriously meant musings about resignation. Once more he found himself having to swallow his pride rather than risk confrontation. In the end it was probably Eisenhower’s poor health (allowing Nixon symbolically to replace the stricken Ike-father on several occasions) that enabled Nixon to get through his purgatorial eight years with Ike.

All this can be mined from Aitken but there are serious gaps in his exculpatory account which leave one wondering quite why so many people hated Nixon so thoroughly. A good part of the reason was that Nixon was no ordinary crook but a man with a bottomless hunger for moral grandeur. He consciously sought and treasured transcendent moments when the elixir of greatness seemed at last within his grasp. One such came when he asked Billy Graham whether he ought to run for President. Graham opined away about the rotten state of the world and how desperately it needed better US leadership, concluding: ‘If you don’t run and provide that leadership, I think the world is going to be in deep trouble.’ Nixon was ecstatic about what came to be termed this ‘Billy Graham moment’. Similarly, when the astronauts returned from the first Moon landing Nixon welcomed them with the cry: ‘This has just got to be the greatest moment in the history of the world!’ Not, you understand, the moment they landed on the Moon, but the one afterwards when Richard Nixon shook their hands. The real fascination of Nixon lies not in his skulduggery but in the way he veered between this lofty search for transcendence and low crookery.

Aitken admires Nixon too much to share that fascination and takes Nixon’s side in many of the most shameful incidents of his career, such as his persecution of Alger Hiss. In the end Hiss was convicted of perjury largely because the FBI showed that Hiss and Whittaker Chambers had used the same machine to type certain key documents. Hiss produced only laughter in court when he told the Grand Jury that ‘until the day I die, I shall wonder how Whittaker Chambers got into my house to use my typewriter.’ Having ruined Hiss’s life, Nixon claimed he had exposed ‘the Communist conspiracy in government’. In point of fact what he had secured was a conviction for perjury based on an identical typeprint. Aitken seems not have read recent biographies of J. Edgar Hoover showing how, having picked Nixon as his chosen instrument in a destabilisation campaign against Truman, Hoover provided him with whatever he needed in order to convict Hiss. Doubtless he had his own ways of providing the identical typescript – vouched for by the FBI – that so floored Hiss. Similarly, Aitken has failed to follow the FBI theme that leads right through to a frightened Hoover’s refusal to carry out Nixon’s request for dirty tricks in the final campaign. But for that refusal it would hardly have been necessary for the Watergate burglary to be carried out by bungling amateurs leaving a trail leading straight back to the White House.

Aitken does not seem to understand just how morally repellent many of Nixon’s attacks on his political enemies were. That they were launched out of naked opportunism, and often justified by a quite horrible moral sententiousness, made them even worse – but Aitken doesn’t seem to see that either. The way Nixon rode the wave of McCarthyism – actually accusing Truman, Acheson and Stevenson of being ‘traitors’ – was not excused (as both he and Aitken seem to think) by the fact that, under orders from Ike, he finally distanced himself from McCarthy. And the speech itself was appalling:

Men who have in the past done effective work exposing Communists in this country have by reckless talk and questionable methods made themselves the issue rather than the cause they believe in so deeply ... Now I can imagine that some of you listening will say: ‘Well, why all this hullabaloo about being fair when you’re dealing with a bunch of traitors?’ As a matter of fact, I’ve heard people say they’re a bunch of rats. What we ought to do is go out and shoot ’em. Well, I’ll agree that they’re a bunch of rats, but just remember this, when you go out to shoot rats, you have to shoot straight, because when you shoot wildly it not only means that the rat can get away more easily, you make it easier on the rat.

Even here Nixon is unable to resist one of his typical digs at the Democrats (‘Incidentally, in mentioning Secretary Dulles, isn’t it wonderful that finally we have a Secretary of State who isn’t taken in by the Communists?’), but the general tone of his famous disavowal of McCarthy – whom he manages never to mention by name – is disgraceful. Aitken, on the other hand, seems not to appreciate the enormity of a Vice-President suggesting only half-playfully that it is OK to shoot down fellow citizens whom one suspects of left-wing views. Similarly, Aitken records how hard-hat workers who heal up flag-burning students were invited for coffee with President Nixon at the White House, without apparently thinking about what exactly was thus being legitimised. Aitken’s own occasional vituperations against Sixties folk who liked long hair and hard rock do not suggest one is in the presence of a particularly subtle set of moral sensibilities.

Nixon took office in January 1969, having been elected on a promise to stop the Vietnam War. The next month he decided to launch a secret bombing war against Cambodia – so secret that the official USAF records had to be falsified and the bomber crews themselves tooled about where they were dropping their bombs. When, three months later, the story nonetheless leaked into the press. Nixon ordered wiretaps to be placed on Administration officials and journalists. When this proved a failure he approved the abortive Huston Plan which provided for sweeping wiretaps, electronic surveillance and infiltration of US citizen groups, recruitment of informers, mail-opening and break-ins. Nixon reached this point after less than eighteen months as President. He was far more hawkish in his disregard of both the law and civil liberties than almost any of his advisers. Whatever his other achievements, such a man is not fit for public office. It is worrying that Aitken, currently Minister of Stale for Defence, does not seem to understand this.