'Being Nixon' portrays a president divided against his better self

Evan Thomas argues that Nixon is much less the evil mastermind of 1970s caricature – and much more a Jekyll-and-Hyde character constantly at war with himself.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided By Evan Thomas Random House 640 pp.

Richard Nixon once told an administration adviser that African-Americans were “just down out of the trees.” Our 37th president also, without fanfare and without credit, oversaw a peaceful transition from segregated schools to integration in the old Confederacy.

He befriended Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr., then abandoned King and ceded the moral high ground to John F. Kennedy, a man who had been more ambivalent on race than Nixon, during the 1960 presidential campaign.

These stark contrasts are among many dissected and freshly examined in Being Nixon, a new biography by Evan Thomas. The author pulls off a neat trick in these pages, arguing that Nixon is much less the evil mastermind of 1970s caricature – and much more a Jekyll-and-Hyde character constantly at war with himself.

None of this is to say Nixon was a victim. As Thomas states, and supports with analysis and detail, the Watergate burglary in 1972 that caused Nixon’s downfall was probably an act of stupidity the president never knew about before it happened. The infamous cover-ups that followed were his fault, along with what Thomas writes was Nixon’s self-created “toxic environment” encouraging dirty political tricks. “He regarded spying on opponents as normal and accepted,” Thomas reminds readers.

This is an interesting time for another look at Richard Nixon. He has been dead 21 years and, for readers in Generation X, not to mention the Millennials, Watergate has always been something in history books rather than an actual memory. Generation Xers were mostly toddlers and preschoolers when the burglary and Nixon’s resignation two years later occurred, while Millennials, of course, weren’t even born.

Even the Woodward and Bernstein stories in The Washington Post that toppled Nixon, bolstered by the subsequent best-selling book and Robert Redford movie (“All the President’s Men”), are, for many current readers, as remote as D-Day or Pearl Harbor. Thomas’s is one of two notable examinations of Nixon this summer, as Tim Weiner, a former New York Times writer known for his astute chronicles of the FBI and CIA, has also recently published a Nixon biography. Weiner’s book relies on troves of newly declassified documents from the Nixon era to re-assess the president’s actions.

Thomas, who wrote for Newsweek for many years before turning to book-length political projects, balances Nixon’s words and actions with skill. He gives the president a wide berth when considering some of the horrible things Nixon says about African-Americans, Jews, and others on the White House recordings infamously set up by Nixon himself. Thomas condemns the content while noting Nixon was often posturing and venting, albeit in a horrible, inexcusable, and cringe-worthy manner. This is tricky terrain, but gains credibility with the use of administration diaries kept by advisers and cabinet members who, in their contemporary accounts, would mention the president’s bluster – and the often-implicit message to ignore the command or complaint as soon as a conversation ended.

“Being Nixon” reminds us and expands on the numerous insecurities haunting Nixon throughout his life. Again, Thomas’s book relies on nuance in its assertions and nuance from its audience.

Thomas isn’t playing Dr. Phil by assigning Nixon’s flaws and sometimes-awful impulses and actions to a tough childhood. Instead, he does a credible job of trying to understand and explain how a man he labels “an introvert in an extrovert’s business” became “one of the most successful politicians in American history” while succumbing to the ultimate act of political self-destruction.

Contradictions and surprises abound in Nixon’s life and in this book. Ronald Reagan almost always receives credit for converting the Solid South of FDR and beyond into a mass of Republican red. Thomas writes, correctly, that it was Nixon who did so, for good and bad. Nixon, a Californian who turned down a scholarship to Harvard University because he and his lower-middle class family couldn’t afford the cross-country travel, maintained a lifelong inferiority complex to Ivy Leaguers.

As president, Nixon ranted about Eastern elites and the Ivy League pedigrees of those in power. Adviser H.R. Haldeman recalled Nixon telling him, “None of them in the Cabinet, do you understand? None of those Harvard bastards!”

Nixon’s closest adviser, and foreign-policy architect, was Henry Kissinger, a Harvard man. So, too, was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who should have been even more loathsome to the president: a Harvard professor and a liberal at that. Yet Nixon, a Republican whose conservative bona fides began with his anti-communist takedown of Alger Hiss, made Moynihan a prominent domestic-policy adviser and included the moderately liberal John Ehrlichman in a similar role in his administration.

Thomas mentions an observation by the eminent presidential chronicler Theodore White “that Nixon hired far more Harvard men than all the Harvard men who had been president [the two Adamses, the two Roosevelts and Kennedy].”

Thomas recaps Nixon’s physical and social clumsiness, noting the president once greeted a wheelchair-bound guest by telling her, “Just last week I met with the Easter Seal children!” Here, too, is the Checkers speech in 1952 that kept Nixon on the ticket as vice presidential candidate to headliner Dwight Eisenhower. “I am not a crook” and “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” also make appearances, along with the late-night legal pad exhortations (“Compassionate Bold New Courageous Strong”) the insomniac president indulged in throughout his White House tenure. These scribblings are used to good effect by Thomas, much as they were in an earlier biography by Richard Reeves.

On Vietnam, where Nixon’s failings included the secret bombing of Cambodia, Thomas blames the president for “wishful thinking” more than anything else for allowing the war to drag on as peace negotiations started and stalled again and again.

Earlier failings on Vietnam by Democratic administrations sowed the seeds of Nixon’s fatal mistake: Watergate. For starters, the Pentagon Papers, leaked by former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg and published by The New York Times in 1971, inflamed and enraged the Nixon administration, in part, because of the precedent that would be established if confidential government documents were published with impunity.

The administration tried and failed to have the publication of the excerpts stopped, with the newspapers ultimately backed by the Supreme Court.

First the Times and then the Post and Boston Globe published portions of the 7,000 pages of documents. Defense secretaries Robert McNamara (JFK) and Clark Clifford (LBJ) had the Pentagon analyze American participation and conduct in Vietnam, with damning conclusions reached; these were the so-called Pentagon Papers.

Among other things, the Pentagon Papers showed deception and worse (undisclosed escalation on a large scale, failed policies and military campaigns) by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations when discussing the state of the war with Congress, reporters and the American public.

At the same time, Nixon remained obsessed over a supposed confidential report (later found to be nonexistent) about LBJ stopping or delaying bombing in Vietnam in 1968 “to help [Nixon’s 1968 Democratic opponent] Hubert Humphrey at the polls....” Haldeman had hired an investigator who mistakenly believed the report had been hidden at the Brookings Institution, a think tank closely aligned with Democrats.

“Goddamnit, get in and get those files,” Nixon told Kissinger and Haldeman. “Blow the safe and get it.”

Thomas notes, “This statement by the president is the first record of him ordering a break-in. It is an astonishing command, especially since simply requesting the material from Brookings might have sufficed.... His aides generally knew when not to carry out his more outlandish instructions, and Haldeman stalled on this one. But it was not the last time Nixon demanded a burglary at Brookings. He did it three more times over the next several weeks....”

Then, too, there is the still-inconceivable ineptitude of the White House Plumbers (as in those responsible for stopping and creating leaks) and co-conspirators Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and attorney general and campaign director John Mitchell, among others. Chuck Colson, the political affairs adviser Nixon employed as a hatchet man, brought in former CIA officer Howard Hunt to help research misdeeds by previous administrations, including suspicion about JFK ordering the 1963 assassination of President Diem in Vietnam.

Thomas recounts Hunt’s first assignment: “Hunt met with the CIA operative who had worked on the Diem coup. A tape recorder was set up under a couch in a vacant office, and Hunt invited the CIA man over to share a bottle of Scotch in order to loosen his tongue. After a couple of hours Hunt appeared in Colson’s office, reporting in. Bleary eyed, tie askew, Hunt stammered an apology. He sheepishly explained that, by mistake, he had sat on the tape recorder, crushing it. He had taken no notes and was too drunk to remember what the man had said.”

G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, joined Hunt in leading the Plumbers. In 1971, they broke into the office of the psychiatrist to Ellsberg, the former defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers. They hoped to find embarrassing information about Ellsberg in the psychiatrist’s patient files, but instead walked away empty-handed.

They were also the masterminds of the clumsy break-in at Democratic headquarters inside the Watergate complex in 1972.

On that occasion, the operatives guided by Hunt and Liddy (with the approval of key Nixon administration advisers) taped the office door horizontally instead of vertically, an obvious tip to security. At a hotel across the street, Hunt and Liddy maintained a command post that was quickly abandoned. Thomas notes Liddy and Hunt “left behind some consecutively numbered hundred-dollar bills, a notebook with Hunt’s name and White House telephone number, and a $6.36 check to Hunt’s country club. Thus did amateurish bumbling doom the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

Reciting the litany of banalities, and juxtaposing the stupidity of Nixon installing a self-incriminating taping system to preserve a record of his foreign-policy achievements and decisions, Thomas poses the inevitable, and unanswerable, question: “Why did no one see that Hunt and, even more so, Hunt’s partner G. Gordon Liddy, were not only comically inept, but dangerously so?”

Whether we keep kicking Richard Nixon around or not, we will be kicking around his motivations, mistakes, and unfulfilled promise for many more years to come. This book merits a place in the discussion.

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