It’s Alive! Our Nixon Problem… and His
Richard Nixon represents the dark side of the American spirit.
A face is raining across the border
The pride of history, the same as murder
Is this living?
He’s been careering…
—Public Image Ltd., The Metal Box
Shades of the ad campaign for Poltergeist II: “He’s Back.” Newsweek, in that halcyon time between the ’84 election and the moment when Ed Meese, turgid Pillsbury doughboy turned ashen, appeared on TV to announce the contra slush fund. On the cover, the most painfully tweaked smile in U.S. politics still seems jerked into motion with pliers. But there’s something foreign, too, hard to pin down — a willingness to let the eyes’ slitted shrewdness gleam true, unfettered by earnestness.
The look isn’t victory. Nixon was forever in sick transit then, apprehensive that the real star’s broken leg would heal, the understudy get yanked back into the shadows. This face is fulfillment. There had been cravings in him only Watergate could satisfy. Now he’s won on his imperative to be, in some unique sense incompletely understood by himself, the politician as modernist — to lay bare his own process, apostrophize the drama of his self-enactment, and then to rub everybody’s nose in his outraged conviction that there was nothing in his character he had not been driven to. (If Nixon is the politician as modernist, he is also, peculiarly, the modernist as fatalist.) The point isn’t that we now approve, or even forgive him; the point is that we haven’t been able to deny him. The artificial man has finally been ratified as authentic.
The public rehabilitation of Richard Nixon has so far proceeded on two separate but related tracks. The first, which the Iran-contra scandal has accelerated, boils down to the argument that while the man may have been a real scum-blob at everything else, he was a master in foreign affairs. “Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, in their day,” writes William Pfaff in a recent L.A. Times op-ed piece, “had coherent ideas about where they wanted the country to go. You might not have liked the ideas but there was an intelligence at work.”
The second track, more oblique, derives from the conventionalizing impulse of history. It’s possible now to see the Nixon years discretely, as an era. With that has come permission, in both the media and academia, to tot up his achievements, impact, and so on, in neutral tones, while treating the Nixon persona and the contemporary response to it as happily no longer at issue. It’s the final “new Nixon,” the first to get rid of the one element that always gummed up the others — his damnable present-tense thereness, his ineluctable Nixon-ness.
This has understandably confused some people. Nixon himself, meantime, with his superbly expedient sense of the moment — he has always treated all his opportunities as necessities, all his talents as survival skills — seized at once on Reagan’s stumble and his own new dispensation, writing an op-ed encyclical on foreign affairs (remember my competence) in collaboration with Kissinger (and people still wait for a Beatles reunion? Sheesh) which had none of the edgy tone characterizing his public utterances since The Accident. Suddenly, he had the loftiness of Marlon Brando addressing Superman from beyond the grave — it was the closest he’d ever come to enjoying himself in public. Nixon’s hope has been that history would vindicate him; now, seeing that the vindication might not be posthumous, he’s acting out all the serene sagacity he was never able to simulate convincingly as President, hoping that, by reverse osmosis, his image now will become his image then. He’s a go-getter about posterity.
Rating Nixon’s foreign-policy skills as brilliant isn’t completely unfounded. He studied hard and certainly had the best intellectual equipment of any recent President. But it’s still a staggering overestimation, confused by the sonorities of Nixon and Kissinger’s methodology — both men flexed the language of Realpolitik with the witless relish of schoolboys who’ve just heard about Machiavelli — into ignoring that the method was valueless outside of a few carefully chosen set-piece applications. Meantime, it let the rest of the world go hang.
The problem with the larger conventionalizing of Nixon, his reinterpretation into historical normality, is that it underestimates him — in a special sense that illustrates the gap between factual and figurative significance. This country has always had a genius for shying away from its more telling self-images. Our leaders, like our culture, have the job of dissimulating not only about what we do but also about what we’re like. Something cracked with Nixon, though; the most notorious liar to occupy the White House was the one who most helplessly acted out the truth.
Stephen Ambrose, in Nixon: The Education of a Politician, stops short of the Presidential years, which are to be covered in a second ‘volume.’ But he’s got more than enough on his hands in the story on Nixon’s [illegible], his self-armoring as the total political cyborg, and his rise to prominence as the bizarre, homily-mouthing Iago of the schizo ’50s. While Ambrose’s previous subject Eisenhower was securing his grip on the national lack of imagination, the Nixon counter-myth congealed, to remain remarkably unchanged for two decades — Tricky Dick, Uriah Heep, the man you wouldn’t buy used cars from, inspiring a loathing more inchoate, and a loyalty more grudging, than shambling, unabashed Joe McCarthy ever called forth.
Ambrose, it’s clear, felt the Republican substitute for the loathing: distaste. But in the interest of a middlebrow conception of historical objectivity, he’s put that aside, adopting what he doubtless considers a more judicious perspective on the man. You can almost feel his relief at discovering that one can put together a plausible Nixon by treating the facts and events of his career at face value, ignoring the obsessive subtext. At times, Ambrose’s reticence can be useful. If he’s unable to appreciate, much less convey, the full, magnificent ghastliness of the Checkers speech, The Honeymooners on trial for its life, he’s good at detailing the grind of conjecture and strategy that went into it — for Nixon, even trauma has to be one-tenth inspiration, nine-tenths perspiration.
Ambrose performs a disservice to literal-minded history, however, when he fails to address the documentable fact that Nixon, throughout his career, made people feel different about him than they did about any other politician. Concluding (with much regretful throat-clearing) that Nixon’s elections to Congress and Senate were, well, yes, “dirty” campaigns, Ambrose remains head-bangingly unaware that they were dirty as a kind of impersonal, implacable given, which was what nobody had ever seen before. More fundamentally, Ambrose lacks any gift for presenting Nixon as a talismanic, poetic figure — which he assuredly is, for all that his soul is prose. Nixon in power, mouthing obscenities which came stuffily to him, chumming around with Bebe Rebozo, unable to have faith he was President, is one of the great native parables, right up there with fat Elvis on drugs and Howard Hughes spooning down vats of ice cream while endlessly rerunning Ice Station Zebra.
We acknowledged this at the time — at least to the extent that our relationship with him was always ironic. We never stopped being aware that the content of his presence in our lives was unrelated to the formulas in which it was presented to us. Not hypocrisy, exactly — more the permanent consciousness that even what was sincere in him would perforce come out willed, impersonated, made specious in its expression even if it hadn’t been in intent. Nixon made knowingness about him take precedence over knowing him. What stayed secret was that, even though disbelieving him as an organic human being, we felt ours was the greater intimacy.
Still, the compulsion to scorn or despise Nixon, at one point the single most reflexive act for a big part of the U.S. electorate, had a quality of protesting too much, because it denied that intimacy its suggestiveness. We recognized him and didn’t want to; reprehensible as his actions were, they weren’t the basis for people’s feelings about him, only the occasion. Both the pro-Nixon books and the neutral ones seem fundamentally uncomprehending, but anti-Nixon literature — except for the books on Vietnam and Watergate, in which outrage turns grimly solemn — have traditionally been shrill and equally inept at grasping him. The classic text is still Fawn Brodie’s Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, hell-bent on insuring that Nixon remains not only a grotesque — which she didn’t have to worry about — but an absolutely sui generis one.
In almost any work that deals with it, the startlingly barren California of Nixon’s rearing — by parents so mired at the shabby-genteel level that even the Depression made no visible impact on their fortunes — sounds a lot like Dorothy’s Kansas, except that no one ever thought of it as home. There’s a fascination in the Quakerism of Whittier, so inapplicably transplanted from its pastoral certainties to the hardscrabble of the part of the country where one’s place in the scheme of things is always most unsettled. In its inability to broach worldly topics, Whittier Quakerism might almost have been calculated to instill in a young man (a) an impression that spiritual matters were supposed to be non sequiturs in relation to the rest of life, (b) a sense of an oppressiveness that could nonetheless not be made to seem malignant, and (c) a conviction that ambition provides no freedom of action but must be channeled into serving the status quo.
The family life, too, is thick with rich indicators, available for pulpy or elegant use, as the writer chooses: the polarities of cantankerous father and “saintly” mother, the trauma of two brothers — one a family pet, the other a family hero — dying before Nixon was out of college, the hints that father Frank was a dreamer too inhibited to realize he was one.
Brodie picks up on most of the obvious stuff — notably the famous “good dog” letter, written when Nixon was 10, which in its relentless, hostile self-abnegation (“one of the boys triped and fell on me. I lost my temper and bit him. He kiked me in the side and we started on”) has entered folklore as the first smoking gun of his career. She goes wrong by having her hypothesized Nixon, whenever faced with a choice between doing good and doing smarmy, coolly and consciously choose villainy every time, for no other reason than that’s the kind of son-of-bitch he is. All the evidence pushes toward the far more horrifying conclusion that Nixon honestly believed himself more acted upon than acting, indeed that, by his own lights, the way of things never allowed him any choice at all. It doesn’t really matter whether he’d have done differently if the world had been arranged otherwise; in his character, “otherwise” never had room to exist.
Garry Wills, whose Nixon Agonistes, despite its attempts to sound more systematic than it is, contains the best and most perceptive writing on Nixon, has remarked that he was probably a fairly decent sort until Murry Chotiner and his Orange County ilk got hold of him. As far as it goes, this may be true, but it doesn’t feel quite right — largely because there was never a time in Nixon’s life when he felt someone or something hadn’t gotten hold of him.
The only emotion he has ever been able to express credibly in public is resentment. It energizes his tone into uncharacteristic vividness, with the live-wire twitch of true jammed-up fervor: “If the American people understood the real character of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil.” Invariably, the feeling is tied to privilege, even when privilege doesn’t seem like the relevant provocation. You can track Nixon starting from an unexceptionable generality, then suddenly rounding toward home, in his comments to Ken Clawson after the resignation: “What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid… [But] if you are reasonably intelligent and your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting around on their fat butts.”
You have to wonder how “those who have everything” got into the scheme, since Whittier wasn’t exactly one of their playgrounds. But substituting elites in general for rich kids in particular clarifies things — and also suggests the element of self-denying convolution in Nixon’s truculence, because he had good reason to feel that his merits included him in an elite, too.
Ambrose, who’s often helpful on this level, reminds us that Nixon was a highly endowed, unusual child from early on — articulate, prodigiously retentive, mentally alert. (He won a scholarship to Harvard, no mean trick in 1930, and only his family’s straitened finances sent him down the street to Whittier College instead. A Harvard Nixon conjures up might-have-beens that boggle the mind.) But his upbringing and circumstances, girded about with relentlessly leveling, increasingly hollow imperatives of duty, service, and obligation, offered no special dispensations for the exceptional. Nor — although he was later to describe his decision-making process as “creative” — does Nixon seem to have had the kind of imagination which would let him look past that blocked-in horizon and invent a role for himself.
Instead, he would invent a self to fit the roles others defined — travestying even what elements of the genuine article he did use by bending them to expedient ends. In the opening of Nixon Agonistes, it’s startling to read of a reflective, almost professorial Nixon, contentedly discussing manifest destiny and Woodrow Wilson with Wills. But the point — though Wills, usually astute in such things, doesn’t comment on it — is that Nixon simply had Wills’s number and was serving him exactly the dish he’d ordered. Material independence, which Nixon characterized as the freedom to do nothing, honestly does not seem to have excited his envy very much. But intellectual independence, the ability to think as one liked, for its own sake, and to follow a course determined only by that, must have struck him as an unfair exemption from the rules. He had to have sensed that he was extraordinary given his awkwardness and unsociability, there was little else for him to forge an ego from. But as far as he could see, the only way for the extraordinary to assert itself was by signing up for service to the ordinary.
He brought a perverse energy — with Nixon, you can never quite say “relish” — to the job of turning the constrictions on his character into the substance of his character. But he never believed it; believing it was another luxury. He claimed to have faith in the U.S. piety that honest hard work alone can bring you the world, yet his defense for everything he did was that his rivals held all the cards — he had to take unfair advantage just to keep even.
More than he realized, he exposed the lie in capitalist democracy, the myth of self-determination — don’t hate those above you; next year, you’ll be one of them — that has kept both the middle and the working classes denying their identity and traducing their own interests. On the one hand, in Nixon’s logic, the decent, modest, hard-working folk — the “little people,” the silent majority — are bound by the rules; on the other, because they’re underdogs, they can justifiably break the rules. He himself was to become the mythic concentration of every small businessman and office striver who frantically cuts corners, diddles the books, baits-and-switches his colleagues, all the while thinking — often with self-pity, sometimes with honest rue — of what fair and decent fellows they could be, if only their backs weren’t pressed to the wall. They won’t even have to cheat on their taxes, once they’re big guns like those rich, morally inferior bastards who have accountants to do it legit.
The greatest service that U.S. democracy provided for the class system was to leave it unacknowledged. Back in bad old Europe, class distinctions forged class consciousness; those at the bottom knew exactly where, and with whom and against whom, their interests lay. But tell them the hierarchy doesn’t exist, that everything’s up for grabs and my God, what a quandary that puts them in; just look at them all milling around. Rebellion gets diverted into envy, and yet the scheme of things won’t give even that any tangible buttress of validity — the most pervasive emotion in the country, it’s also an emotion forever in blind search of its own cause, which may explain de Tocqueville’s remark that he found more unaccountable personal unhappiness here than anywhere he knew. What gives the envy spectrum its final bizarre touch is that of course the genuinely rich and powerful, falling for their own platitudes, feel it too; Nelson Rockefeller’s public career was one long exercise in it, which — given the circumstances — could only baffle him and us both.
At the same time, the purest conformity often manifests itself as rebellion, rebellion into conformity, against a usually misconstrued, at times flat-out fantastic “they.” All that frustration has to go somewhere, and just as the competitive ethic demands rivals, its ideological dimension requires enemies. One of Nixon’s first public speeches, when he was in his teens, was for a Kiwanis Club oratory contest on the theme of the Constitution. Others had spoken in praise of its benefits; Nixon warned darkly against those who misused its privileges, seeking to undermine it. Even Ambrose, looking around Whittier in vain for the bomb-throwers, wonders what his grounds were. But it isn’t peculiar that Nixon’s speech won.
Still, his own relation to the values he lived by was never harmonious. Much in Nixon’s make-up, with minor changes in its angle of deflection, could suggest the formation of a great nay-sayer. But in the U.S.A., those most obstructed by the system become its greatest boosters, to keep their sanity — if its values weren’t omnipotent, how could they have been made to suffer so? Nobody had to co-opt Elvis; he was there first. Nixon the unwitting potential radical grew up to be Nixon the patsy, Nixon the stooge, and by so doing joined the majority. Ambrose, seeking to dispute the myth that Nixon was invented, politically speaking, by a cabal of Orange County millionaires, points out that the committee which solicited him to run for Congress was in fact composed of anti–New Deal businessmen, “men who really hated FDR, far more than the corporate heads, who after all had cut their own deals.…” But the millionaires, or corporate heads, didn’t have to go hunt out a Nixon. The undergrowth would toss one up to them, ready for use.
The distinctively modern aspect of Nixon is that he can’t help betraying an awareness of the artifice in himself. He’s fascinated by it, always seeking to make explicit how the thing was put together, as if sensing that this fabrication is the real subject of his life, the experience corresponding to what in more traditional heroes’ lives would have been the formation of their character. Ambrose quotes a Tom Wicker review of Six Crises (“the book’s great lack… is any significant, disclosures about Nixon the man — what he really felt, thought, believed, what he really was”) before indignantly marshaling a covey of dissenting voices to claim that, on the contrary, the book “revealed a veritable passion for self-analysis” (Fawn Brodie). But Wicker and Ambrose are both right, because Nixon’s self-analysis, while indeed obsessive, is invariably, of a persona, not a person — out of a conviction that, “Nixon the man” has always been irrelevant.
For all Nixon’s unseemly pride in manipulating the contraption that was himself (reading him on the subject of his mental mastery is like listening to a gun nut exhibit his collection), his intense self-alienation recalls Greil Marcus’s description of the dehumanized Professor Unrat, at the end of The Blue Angel, “holding his body as if it were one enormous clubfoot.” Physically, it came through less in clumsiness (he let Spiro bounce the golf balls off bystanders’ heads) than in a compulsion to second-guess and calibrate his own moment-to-moment presence. The habit became a national joke, and writers never tired of describing it (“SMILE, said his brain; FLASH, went the teeth” — Mailer, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago). He could hardly walk into a room without experiencing the paralyzing sensation that he was on camera. Nixon looked peculiar only because he was the first to express that condition and all too painfully embodied it.
Most of us make Checkers speeches, to the brain’s fourth wall, every day of our lives, but we would shudder at making them in public. It isn’t professional; we aren’t careering. In a sense, those who insisted that “it didn’t start with Watergate” had a point. But they went back to Johnson, Roosevelt, when they should have gone back to Kafka, and Nausea, and maybe the moment when Al Jolson, in The Jazz Singer, cemented the last brick into the modern age by turning to the camera and exclaiming, “You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks.”
Nixon struggled — not entirely dishonorably, despite the Roadrunner collapse at the end — against yielding to outright nihilism. But he could never make a dent in the anomie that had been his birthright. He was the first political representative of the newly widespread, post-World War II rootlessness: if Whittier qualifies as roots, then we’re all natives. Every politician, and certainly any President, claims dozens of associations, sentimental attachments, bondings, which they don’t authentically feel in themselves; Nixon, I think, was the first who could claim none, except for maybe football, that he did feel. By the time of the invasion of Cambodia, he was turning for sustenance to Patton — the movie, not the general.
By now, of course, rootlessness has been rationalized, assimilated as the norm. Most of us take it for granted that we have to pick and choose what we identify with, and that most of it is synthetic. The old organizing entities — religion, family, community — are either debilitated, or suspect, or just not comprehensive enough to define anybody’s world. Among Presidents, you can trace a direct development from Johnson (bluffing his roots into more than they had been, and then trying to sham his way out of them, but all as the occasion warranted), to Nixon (able to make nothing from nothing), to Reagan, for whom synthetic identifications are authentic. But Nixon didn’t know that; when the old continuities cracked, all that was in him was the fracture.
The subordination motif in Nixon’s career — never making any autonomous choice but forcing the fluids of his ambition through the coils wound by larger forces, other authorities — continues up to and beyond his election as President. During his near-decade as Eisenhower’s veep, the subordination was literal — and, in terms of Eisenhower’s handling of him, an apotheosis. Wills’s chapter on Eisenhower, among the best things in his book, is still an eye-opener to one in the habit of thinking of Ike as a befuddled caretaker, a less destructive Reagan. Eisenhower knew exactly what he wanted from Nixon — to act as a lightning rod, be the Republican Party partisan that Ike neither was nor wished to be, and generally do all the rough-and-tumble political dirty work Ike took care to avoid. (Which is incidentally a more useful role for a vice-president than any of his successors have come up with.) He also knew the measure of his man: Johnson humiliated Hubert Humphrey for kicks, but Eisenhower humiliated Nixon pragmatically. Only management of a masterfully wily order could sustain a prominent and active lieutenant without allowing him even the dream of an independent power base.
It was the paradigmatic relationship of Nixon’s career. Ike always made it clear that Nixon was pigeonholed: he kept him dangling after the Checkers speech and again when it came time for the 1956 vice-presidential nomination, with the suggestion “Chart your own course.” (Nixon’s refusal to chart anything seems to have been what quietly decided Eisenhower that he lacked presidential mettle.) Years later, on what should have been the most fulfilled night of Nixon’s life, he felt compelled to tell the 1968 Republican convention, “Let’s win this one for Ike.” (And who knows? Nixon may even have been conventional enough to feel sure, more sure, he’d made it on the day his daughter married the boss’s grandson than on the day he moved into the White House.)
While Nixon got elected with relatively few political IOUs — though the one to Strom Thurmond pretty much cleaned out the pot — no one has entered the office so literally less his own man. Luckily, constriction — the constriction that let him rationalize himself — hemmed him in on all sides. He inherited a morass of a war; no one could blame him for starting it, and if he just hung in there long enough, no one could blame him for losing it, either (25,000 more U.S. casualties, untold Vietnamese, and all of Cambodia paid the premium for his blamelessness). The economy was so far off the tracks that he could justify even his most cynical proposals as emergency measures, reluctantly taken. Domestic dissent and black rebellion were so widespread that his need for a “they,” for enemies who would compel him to strike back, righteously and underhandedly at once, was finally sated and gratified beyond his wildest dreams. In a sense, Watergate’s predominance in Nixon’s second term, after the last ’60s fires had sputtered out, was the only thing that could have prevented his Administration from lapsing into inertia, because the prerequisite for his approach and abilities, the one setting in which he knew how to operate, was a trap.
The final constriction, driving him from political life for good, turned out to be Congress and the will of the citizenry. This would sound like a line from the hoariest civics speech if it weren’t being resurrected by Nixon’s defenders, and of course Nixon himself, as a means of exculpating him — creating the ultimate Nixonian stab-in-the-back theory to make large claims for, and explain the brevity of, his successes in foreign policy, the one field in which he was supposed to have had the freedom to act as he wished. At the most basic level, the argument runs that he started wonderful things, and would have completed them, if we only hadn’t used that flimsy Watergate pretext to bring him down in his prime. The argument’s advocates usually leave unsaid that Nixon preferred foreign policy because there the Executive can often act unilaterally, unburdened by the strictures of democracy.
The most recent book to take up this gauntlet is C.L. Sulzberger’s slender, wide-margined, wide-eyed tome The World and Richard Nixon, which might be worth note only as a curiosity if it didn’t contain some of the most deliciously inadvertent high comedy I’ve ever read. Sulzberger is a voracious power groupie, a Plaster Caster of statesmen’s skulls; he makes Arthur Schlesinger look like a nun. Peaking early, in “Lunch With the World”; (not the chapter’s real title, unfortunately), C.L. breaks bread and chats about Nixon with various foreign luminaries, culling such gems as Hirohito’s admission, with an “admiring chuckle,” that he sees the “connection” between Nixon’s Russia and China overtures. Sulzberger chuckles, too, even when snacking alone. He quotes in full a ponderous memo he wrote Nixon on what our next move should be in Chile; his own account makes clear to everyone but him that his suggestions got used, if at all, as wallpaper. His pontifical urge is simply dazzling. He quotes Nixon on Kent State: “When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.” This is delirious on its own, but Sulzberger continues: “And one might add: When tragedy got out of hand it invited disaster.”
I don’t know which is better — tragedy unwilling to act responsibly, or that “And one might add.” If this is the Establishment that Richard Nixon kowtowed to, craved approval from, resented, and worked for as butcher’s boy all his public life, there are elements of pathos and burlesque in his story, and ours, far beyond what we suspected.
Sulzberger and his ilk praise Nixon’s diplomacy as pragmatic, experienced, and flexible. But it was determinedly “conceptual” — pure mental flexings and superstructures, impervious or grudging to whatever did not fit the grand design he’d drawn for the history books. Nixon’s insecurities, which only let him believe his own stature when he was dealing with the very largest issues, negotiating with the biggest opposite numbers, found a perfect complement in Kissinger’s grandiose theoretical frameworks, the academic’s version of hubris, which ruthlessly jammed the world into his vessels, leaving him fuming when it wouldn’t stay put: “I don’t see why we should stand by and let a country go Communist just because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”
The Nixon-Kissinger foreign-policy blueprint was brilliant, if you accepted that there were only five countries in the world: the U.S., Russia, China, at times a shiny gadget store known as Japan, and a hazy, intermittent Brigadoon yclept “Europe.” The other 120-odd nations were dispensable, obstreperous annoyances at best. And, because Nixon and Kissinger’s vanities compelled them to concentrate all conduct of diplomacy in their persons, there was no U.S. policy, even at the monitoring or caretaker level, toward those areas of the world they had no personal brief for. Even at their favored great-power level, they insistently cast things in terms of tour-de-force “historic initiatives,” tableau effects, seldom the unglamorous, patient, day-to-day continuities and receptivities involved in developing long-term relations.
If the high points of the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy tend to all thunderclap and no rain, their record in the Third World is one of ignorance and indifference, compounded by hasty and incompetent rushings-in after the unwatched pots, to their aggrieved surprise, boiled over. Their trademark is a sudden and brutal assertion of U.S. predominance in countries they had not previously shown the remotest interest in: thuggishly in Chile, with squalid ineptitude in Angola and Cyprus, hysterically in Portugal (Kissinger, always more in love with his ability to make analogies than with their aptness, denouncing Mario Soares on the spot as a “Kerensky”), with incalculable short-sightedness in the “tilt” toward Pakistan, which alienated India, the region’s giant, for the sake of ensuring a friendly halfway house for Kissinger’s China trip. After four years of near-total silence, in 1973 Nixon-Kissinger abruptly declared a “Year of Europe,” announcing their conclusion that it was time for the U.S. to step back in and decide everything; they couldn’t understand the European fury at both the tokenism and the presumption. Even Europhile-Nixophile Sulzberger has to confess that the NATO alliance was left in a shambles at the end of the Nixon presidency, and has not yet recovered.
Of the triumphs, Kissinger’s years of well-publicized shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East now look the most suspect — particularly since they culminated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Sadat had decided he would have to fight anyway. More damagingly, their intent never went beyond the tactical — to make sure that the U.S. maintained its influential position in the area. The actual issue was never addressed, even though the Israeli grip on the territories occupied in 1967 was considerably less adamant than it is now. Especially given Nixon’s leverage over the Israelis after Yom Kippur, a great opportunity was squandered without ever having been recognized. The China opening still looks impressive, though more for removing a festering sore from U.S. domestic politics than for any great advantages that have accrued abroad. Like the once-celebrated détente with the Soviets, it seems to have been engineered with an eye more for the history books than for anything that might occur before they’re written.
What you end up with in Nixon the diplomat is the same as with Nixon the everything else: not a statesman; but an incredible simulation. He mimicked his own conception of what a world leader should be like. Today, he’s still mimicking, turning his status as a historical figure into a new career, new strivings — though he seems at long last grown accustomed to the prospect that the past is his only future. (It wasn’t always so; among the most curious products of his retirement is a book called Leaders, which is supposed to be a chattily Eisenhowerian reminiscence of the great statesmen he has known. But at every opportunity, discussing Adenauer, De Gaulle, whoever, Nixon diffidently, and almost touchingly, inserts a mention that they all came back from what seemed complete political oblivion and made their greatest contributions when in their seventies — why, even their eighties. You have to shake your head: not only because he just never gives up, but because nothing in him is not strategy.) Of course, “accustomed” does not mean “reconciled,” never with Nixon; that’s just another role that’s been forced on him, one that took longer to suss out than most, and somewhere deep inside him is this ticking: Bush will falter. Kemp’s as dumb as Romney. Dole…
Which doesn’t mean we have to take it seriously. But what one has to understand is that for Nixon, exposure — even when it’s as total as Watergate — has always been a purification rite. The dismantling that begins renewal. He did it first in ’52, when he put what little residue of private life he had on public show in the Checkers speech, and dared anyone to say that he had not sacrificed his all to us; he did it again a decade later, letting his accumulated bitterness and hostility — not just toward “the media,” but toward Eisenhower, Whittier, life — show with “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” thus clearing the decks to make the next campaign seem a heroic comeback, not a lame reprise. Nixon’s best-hidden yearning is that, knowing we will never like him, he hopes that he will excite our pity and be saved. To stand with all his fabrication of himself revealed is the closest he can come to making a case for himself — to say, but look at what they have done to me, imagine my agony at being forced to wear this mask. He wants us to see the pain in his charade. I suspect that the reason he would not, could not, destroy the Watergate tapes was that to him they were precious testimony to the pain: he honestly thought that, hearing the inflictions on him, the corners he’d been forced into, we’d feel the awed compassion that we do for Job.
Salesman Job. The criminal as victim, as disbelieving witness to himself. The hyena in the mirror, asking you to feel sorry for him. Nixon’s mistake was believing that identifying with him would bring compassion; we identified with him all along, and that was why we’ve done our best to vomit him out. He deserves the epitaph that Valery once gave Stendhal: we will never be done with him. But until — well, never, the most demanding, difficult acknowledgment his fellow citizens, who elected him President twice, could make of him is a comment that completes the Bobby Kennedy line I started with — the half that Bobby was wisely demagogic enough to leave unsaid. It’s the quotation from Lord Jim that was once applied to Nixon by Tom Wicker, certainly no fan: “He was one of us.” ■
Fun With Dick
NIXON: The Education of a Politician. By Stephen Ambrose. Simon & Schuster, $22.95.
RICHARD NIXON: The Shaping of His Character. By Fawn Brodie. Simon & Schuster, $8.95 paper.
NIXON AGONISTES. By Garry Wills. Mentor/New American Library, $5.95 paper.
THE WORLD AND RICHARD NIXON. By C.L. Sulzberger. Prentice Hall, $18.95.
LEADERS. By Richard Nixon. Warner Books, $17.50; $3.95 paper.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 1, 1987