When writing about Richard Nixon, it seems historians are keen to not only weigh his overall contribution, but to make a judgement on whether he is a winner or loser. Or at least whether he looked like a winner or loser. Daniel Frick’s recent study of Nixon and American culture (Reinventing Richard Nixon) begins “For Richard Nixon, nothing succeeded better than failure.” (An attempt on Frick’s part to have it both ways perhaps.) Rick Perlstein’s second volume of his lively history of conservatism in American politics, Nixonland, begins by comparing Lyndon Johnson’s and Nixon’s landslide election wins of 1964 and 1972 respectively. Volume Three of Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon biography also begins with a comment about the ’72 election win. As does Stanley Kutler’s The Wars of Watergate, stating, “The victory was spectacular”. J. Anthony Lukas’s history of Watergate, published soon after, in contrast begins (in a chapter entitled ‘Fear of Losing’), “In the raw winter of 1970 Richard Nixon looked like a loser”. In all these cases I think there is a desire to contrast image and reality, to show that not all was what it seemed, to play up the Greek tragedy-nature of Nixon’s presidency, which is indeed why it remains so fascinating.
And perhaps this sums up our need to put people in boxes and to make singular black and white judgements about them. Is it possible to so pigeon-hole a life? The challenge of the biographer is to give an overall picture without turning it into a caricature.