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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in