It is not exactly a revelation to point out that politicians’ words don’t always match their deeds. But with Richard Nixon this is heightened to a hilarious degree. What is notable about Nixon that it is not just a twisting of the truth, but a public statement of Nixon’s will be the complete opposite of what is true. There is something Freudian about this and of course biographers have had a field day with Nixon’s psychology. It is not that Nixon was just Pinocchio-nosed, but that he seemed pathologically short-sighted, at times, when it came to the truth. Stanley Kutler, in what remains one of the most comprehensive books about Watergate, The Wars of Watergate, describes Nixon’s ‘knack for regretting or repudiating the opposite of what was true’. He was often unwilling to face up to reality if it didn’t suit, interestingly for someone who prided himself on his hard-nosed approach. There is something of this in his statement in the David Frost interviews that if the president does it, it is not illegal. Nixon never seemed to get the point that it wasn’t about particular technicalities but about the general sentiment that lay behind and was epitomised by this strange assumption. This is what his critics targeted – for all his talk of morals, Nixon was forever the lawyer trying to find the loophole.
It is not the main thrust of his book, but Stanley Kutler certainly notes Nixon’s tendency to act in complete contradiction to his public pronouncements. Nixon described his senate campaign against Helen Douglas as ‘one of the cleanest’, despite widespread depictions of it as the opposite. He began his presidency with talk of unity, but never desisted in finding fractures in society that he could leverage open to his advantage. In choosing his cabinet he made noises about an inclusive White House, but made it clear to the heads that they would not ‘own’ their departments, and intended to micromanage in order to reinforce his leadership qualities. Which was also at odds with his desire to focus on being the international statesman. After the infamous Christmas bombing of Hanoi during the Vietnam War, he said that he would reach out beyond the US’s traditional allies, but he was pulling up the drawbridge against any criticism of his actions during the war. Less seriously, he, apparently with a straight face, suggested to his aides that he draft some answers for a proposed interview in order to look ‘spontaneous’. In 1968 he said, ‘truth will be a hallmark of the Nixon Administration’.
Of course it was untruth that will be remembered as the hallmark of his administration. As Watergate began swamping the White House he told his aides ‘I have told everyone around here … tell the truth’, while the White House tapes show how bogged down the White House became in stopping the truth getting out.