Of the latest crop of Nixon biographies, Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas is an attempt at fairly assessing Richard Nixon, that divisive and unbalanced figure. And yet the verdict is of a leader who Thomas notes was ‘incapable of following his own advice’, and who Thomas sees as depressingly human in his frailties and his ramblings, pettiness, self-deception, cluelessness and contradictions, particularly evident on the White House tapes. Thomas suggests that his slow deliberation, which might also be described as calculation, meant that he circled around the Watergate issue and incriminated himself without actually taking charge of the situation. He could pronounce that cover-ups and grduges were bad while these were exactly what brought Nixon unstuck. There are many little examples of Nixonisms – self-contradictory statements, such as when he jotted in his diary that ‘burden’ is a wrong word for the presidency before going on to note that it is a ‘glorious burden’. And there is more evidence that Nixon was a strange personality to be president: shy, wary of confrontation. He was also impetuous, especially when angry, and aides got used to ignoring his wilder directives. Nixon himself seemed to recognise this, noting that when staff made their own decisions about whether to follow through on orders, they were being admirably strong-minded. Kind historians suggest that Watergate might not have happened if some of Nixon’s staff hadn’t taken seriously his requests for bugging and burglaries.
There are also more anecdotes about Nixon’s slapstick clumsiness, such as when he accidentally slapped a soldier’s face while trying to shake his hand (almost impossible to imagine how this happened), and when, in a cabinet meeting, he dropped his pen after accidentally stabbing himself in the hand and the cabinet members were crawling around on the floor trying to find it for him.