Nixon’s image

Richard Nixon: The Life, John Farrell, Scribe.

Richard Nixon remains fascinating, an introvert in an extrovert’s game. He once said that politics would be fine if one didn’t have to deal with people. As has been well documented (ironically), his social awkwardness and fear of confrontation created an insular, secretive culture in the White House – a hothouse which created distortions, subterfuge, a siege mentality, and an environment where sores could fester (which even loyal staff readily admitted) and which eventually brought him down.

Many noticed Nixon’s amorality, a tendency to put votes over principles. Although he did more than most US presidents for the environment, race relations and, especially, the thawing of Cold War hostilities, these things seem to have been pursued not for their own sake, but for the sake of Nixon’s image, and to get ahead of real and imagined enemies. He was not a hard-line conservative, but was happy to steal liberal policies if they showed up his opponents. Of course, many darker things were done for the same reasons.

His victory over the communist spy Alger Hiss seemed to be as much about embarrassing the East Coast establishment. He brooded long over slights originating in snobbery. John F Kennedy remarked nastily that Nixon had ‘no class’. But part of the so-called Georgetown set’s antipathy towards Nixon was due to Nixon’s oddness. After-all, Kissinger was no landed gentry, but charmed the dinner party circuit with his wit. In Nixon they perhaps sensed duplicity, and the coldness on both sides was mutually reinforcing. JFK, again, said that Nixon could never be himself. JFK felt entitled to leadership. Nixon acted as if he was sneaking in the back door. He either felt he didn’t belong, or felt that others felt he didn’t belong. Nixon didn’t like the soul-searching of self-analysis, but one can see why he was fodder for journalists and biographers with a taste for psychology.

It is easy to forget that Nixon had little experience in governing, but was a career politician. His work in the law probably entrenched his combative tendencies. He ran for governor but lost, and although he was vice president, that role is famously ceremonial. Eisenhower shut him out of much of the decision making process, while expecting him to campaign for him (which Nixon was good at). Once Nixon became president the campaigning didn’t really stop. And as Nixon himself noted, he also couldn’t stop plotting against his enemies, seemingly unable to enjoy having finally made it. Kissinger, Haldeman and others on his staff noted that Nixon couldn’t enjoy success, usually turning darkly to how any successes wouldn’t be credited to him properly by the press, who he hated, and who hated him.

Though he thought of himself as unusually calm under pressure, he was also at times unhinged, not helped by his notoriously low tolerance of alcohol, and the uppers and downers he was prescribed, which only exacerbated the effects of any alcohol. He also suffered from chronic sleeplessness, which fuelled his brooding over slights and plots for revenge.

John Farrell’s new biography aims to be the definitive biography, but there is no such thing, because of Nixon’s complexities, and the differing opinions he inspires. One journalist wrote at the time of Watergate that Nixon will be ‘forever a mystery’. But Farrell tells the story well, partly because he makes use of new material that, among other things, shows just how Machiavellian Nixon was, and, in particular, dredges up evidence to confirm that Nixon’s behaviour during the 1968 election campaign, where he secretly communicated with the South Vietnamese in order to undermine Lyndon Johnson and the VP and Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, was indeed treasonable.

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