1. Nixon is Everywhere
I’m going to put on an old record, if you don’t mind. Let’s see if I remember how this damned hi-fi works. The needle’s kind of scratchy, but — ah, there we go. You’ll recognize those gliding saxophones, nonchalant and sprightly. The voice, which has a vintage Buick’s lazy swagger — bourbon-mahoganied; Camel-catarrhed — belongs to an approximate contemporary of Richard Nixon’s. I’m playing an alternate take of Frank Sinatra doing “Witchcraft,” of which, as it doesn’t exist, I own the only copy.
Those wiggling fingertips
Dartin’ eyes that never quit, ah
That sweaty upper lip … lt’s —
Saturday, September 20, 1952; Eugene, Oregon. The Republican nominee for vice president chuffed into town aboard his campaign train, the Nixon Special. Two days earlier, the New York Post had revealed that the junior California senator had had a secret fund set up for his benefit by his Orange County backers. The following Tuesday, he would appear on TV, haggardly protesting not so much his innocence as his virtue, his wife’s virtue, his little daughters’ dog’s virtue — the Checkers speech. But on Saturday, in liberal, collegiate Eugene, the depot crowd included hecklers with picket signs. According to Roger Morris in his magisterial Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, “Two junior college students carried one reading ‘WILL THE VEEP’S SALARY BE ENOUGH, DICK?’ ”
I’m a great admirer of the Morris book, but I’ve always been miffed about that “junior college” crack. At the time, my father, who was holding up the right end of the sign — in the photo in our family album my mom’s face at the other end is obscured — was regarded as one of the University of Oregon’s most promising graduate students in American history. He was there on the GI Bill, having, like Nixon, been in the Navy during the second World War.
Nearly 20 years later, my father, by then in the Foreign Service, got sent over to the White House to brief President Nixon on some bit of diplomatic twaddle. At least as Dad reported it to us that night, back in the D.C. suburbs — we’d lived like kings abroad, only to learn on coming home that we were middle-class: bummer — he’d spent the whole interview being disconcerted at how Nixon, whose well-drilled memory for faces was famously prodigious, kept looking at him with the strangest smile. Bracing himself for the presidential question that never came — “Where have I seen you before?” — my father glumly pondered the effect of his answer: “Probably on one end of a 15-foot sign.”
We all laughed. We’d been raised as second-generation Nixon-haters. Our cat, a tangle of Siamese nerves that Dad had named Checkers, was probably around somewhere, looking panicked.
Vaulting into the bridge, Sinatra’s confidence breasts the pumping horns like whitecaps:
And al-though-my-kids-are-reading Ca-MUS —
When you de-stabilize Chile
My heart says “Yes, indeed, Tricky —
Pro-ceed with what you’re making us do,” yes — it’s
On November 8, 1972 — the day after Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection victory over George McGovern — my father was in Bethesda Naval Hospital, dying. I went to his bed in the intensive care unit, telling myself that he ought to know about the results. He’d raised me to believe that such things were important, and I suppose that, for reassurance’s sake, I needed to hear that he still thought so.
“Well, Dad, it’s all over,” I said. “Nixon won.”
My poor father! He was zonked on a smorgasbord of painkillers. Hopelessly confused, his yellowed vague eyes wandered around. But somehow he knew that he ought to respond, and finally he beseeched his brain into remembering how. Here’s what he muttered to placate me:
It would probably please him to know that those were the last words I ever heard him speak.
But many years later, in Los Angeles, I was telling an editor that I thought a certain obstreperous celebrity’s behavior was Nixon-esque. Judith looked at me fondly, for which I’m grateful to her. And then she laughed: “Oh, Tom — everyone reminds you of Nixon …”
2. Yorba Linda
The Roger Morris biography is the best Nixon book, surpassing even Garry Wills’s great Nixon Agonistes, because Morris is the only writer to recognize Nixon’s story as fundamentally Californian; that’s to say, a tale of the West. It’s true that Garry Wills can write rings around nearly everybody, but the problem is that Wills can also write rings around himself.
California is where beginnings end. To get there, we devastated a continent, butchering its inhabitants as we went. We’d used Africa as a human meat locker. Incredibly, we now spend our time fretting over just where we lost our innocence.
But the Nixons missed the epic; missed the, shall we say, glamour. The Nixons came over after the Mayflower, on boats whose names no one remembers. The Nixons followed the wagon trains out West, looking for a good spot to put a grocery. The Nixons looked upon the vista that left stout Cortez agape, and thought, Now here’s a place for the grocery; vistas are nice, but we’re too poor to enjoy them. There have always been more Nixons among us than pioneers.
Yorba Linda, California, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, is one of the bleakest, butt-ugly places I ever care to see. In hot weather, it smells seared, as if whatever was really there burned long ago, and this is a substitute. The people are very nice in a wan way, sort of like they worry what you’ll do if they aren’t.
At 10, writing to his mother — the family having moved to Whittier by then — Nixon produced his first contribution to the Nixon legend: the Good Dog Letter.
The two boys that you left me with are very bad to me. Their dog, Jim, is very old and he will never talk or play with me.
On Saturday the boys went hunting. Jim and myself went with them. While going through the woods 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. While we were walking I saw a black round thing in a tree. I hit it with my paw. A swarm of black thing came out of it. I felt pain all over. I started to run and as both of my eys were swelled shut I fell into a pond. When I got home I was very sore, I wish you would come home right now.
Your good dog,
Whatever else this is, it’s certainly what Morris calls it: “the pitiable cry and fantasy of a lonely boy.” By adolescence, though, nothing shows but determination — a determination that often seems to precede any purpose, even as it precludes any satisfaction. At Duke, where he studied law in the ’30s, Nixon was known as “Iron Butt” for his punishing study habits. For the rest of his life, he treated intellectual diligence as a form of toughness. It was the credo of a man who staked more on his will than his gifts, considerable as those gifts were; he was, after all, the brainiest president of this century. (Only his hero, Woodrow Wilson, comes close.)
When Nixon, as a young lawyer, started wooing Patricia Ryan, he would chauffeur her to Los Angeles for her dates with other beaus, and then grimly return to collect her afterward. There is no record of whatever self-immolating thoughts he may have had in the interims.
Like her husband, Pat Nixon came from near penury — worse in her case than his, actually. In a rare slip of self-discipline, she once bridled at Gloria Steinem — “I never had it easy, I’m not at all like you” — having incorrectly but revealingly assumed that Steinem was born privileged. During Nixon’s presidency, she was, like him, widely derided. But she must have been a woman of considerable forbearance and courage. One fact that never came out until her death last year from lung cancer was that she’d been a furious closet chain-smoker — as, for that matter, was (is) Jacqueline Kennedy.
During World War II, Nixon served as a supply officer in the South Pacific. You sort of want to picture him standing on shore, watching as swank Jack Kennedy’s PT boat flashes by. But for what it’s worth, Nixon’s unglamorous labors were undoubtedly more help to the war effort. This also seems to have been the only period of his life when he was relaxed and socially at ease: being Lieutenant Nixon took the chore of being Nixon out of his. hands.
Like most idylls, it couldn’t last. Today, no one thinks of the late ’40s as years of revolutionary ferment, but in many ways they were. Spawned by the wartime economic boom, armed with the GI Bill, America’s modern middle class had reached the scene; before settling down to enjoy their hard-won tract homes and TV sets, the newcomers conducted their own reign of terror. While postwar politics are usually described exclusively in terms of Cold War paranoia, most of the red-baiting and witchhunting was under way well before the Russians ever got the bomb, in the overlooked interlude when the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly. Something else was going on, or also going on — the dislodging of an old order, in this case of the patrician gentleman’s club that had assumed that running the country was its preserve, with the traditional cry of “Treason!” as the pretext. In Nixon — “the ultimate self-made man,” as Garry Wills called him — the newly assertive postwar middle class found its churlish cynosure, a Robespierre of the raw new suburbs.
Back in Whittier, some well-heeled local Republicans, the self-styled Committee of 100, recruited the returned vet to run for Congress against the local squire, amiable, pipe-smoking Jerry Voorhis — who’s gone stumbling off into history’s footnote-hills without ever having known what hit him. As he always would, Nixon ran hard and ran dirty. But to him, smearing Voorhis as a fellow traveler probably didn’t even seem vindictive — just diligent. Campaigning, which he hated, was a test of his mettle, and he would always rather get caught sinning than relenting.
The Hiss case came in ’48. Like all Nixon’s subsequent crises — his favored term for situations involving himself — it took shape as both a morality play and an oddly inverted class struggle, with psychological underpinnings that were all out of whack with its surface dynamics. I might as well admit that if anybody can get me rooting for Nixon, it’s Alger Hiss. Elegant, well-connected, and supercilious, the accused Soviet agent was a New Deal golden boy, an iron of the Establishment. Yet what Nixon the glowering bourgeois avenger had against him wasn’t his betrayal of his class, but his class. The outsider was saving the Establishment from the insider: Nixon’s social resentment fostered not radicalism but militant conventionality, because he saw going against convention as being itself one of privilege’s hoity-toity prerogatives.
Once again, Nixon cut corners, diddling the evidence even where the unriddled truth might have won the day for him. The congressional prosecutor, not the defendant, was the one who behaved throughout as if the pack was breathing down his neck, and desperate remedies were in order to compensate. Even as president, Nixon would cling to nailing Hiss as what a later generation would call his defining moment, in self-apostrophizing language that the same generation might also recognize as less appropriate to a political vendetta than to a therapeutic breakthrough.
1950: the Senate race. He ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas — another upper crust darling to be given her comeuppance, attacked as the “Pink Lady,” sent reeling. Even if the charge wasn’t true, she, like Voorhis and Hiss, deserved to be brought down for having made him feel small.
Just two years later came the vice-presidential nomination, the slush fund, Checkers. After the success of Nixon’s speech had cornered a furious Eisenhower into keeping him on the ticket, Ike patronized him even as he welcomed him: “You’re my boy.”
He stayed that for the next eight years, doing the partisan chores Ike disdained, feeding the faithful the partisan red meat Ike despised. His reward was the 1960 presidential nomination, and Ike was grudging about giving him even that. After Nixon lost that November, Jack Kennedy is said to have delivered a famously cutting dismissal:. “No class.”
In 1962, Nixon ran for governor of California and lost, disastrously. Nobody believed he had any interest in governing California. (They were right.) After his defeat, he lost control. He met the press, and saw a swarm of black thing. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he told it.
How wrong he was, and still is. We’ll never get done kicking him around.
Oh, how we hated him! New Frontier parents and their New Left kids can agree: nobody was ever hated with the zest we brought to hating Nixon. Joe McCarthy aroused too much fear for hate to gain ascendancy; Ronald Reagan mostly inspired an Invasion of the Body Snatchers dread that one day we’d relax our vigilance and end up liking him, as lulled as everybody else.
But hating Nixon was lovely. You felt good about life when you hated him. There are still millions of people in their forties and older whose political self-esteem is founded on their hatred of Nixon. (I hated him first. Well, I hated him more.)
Yet it had a special emotional timbre, this hate. It meant a lot to us. It was savagely contemptuous, without managing to sound dismissive. It insisted on finding him not only wicked but ridiculous, not only evil but absurd. It was strident and obsessively rancorous, but we’d have been baffled had anyone suggested that there was, or could be, anything excessive about it. It was strangely reassuring, because so long as we could hate him, we had no doubts about ourselves. It was appealingly familiar — he’d always been right there in our faces, as graspable as themorning toothbrush. It was —
The obituaries are calling Nixon’s psychology a riddle and a mystery, paradoxical and baffling. That’s a laugh. He lived exposed to us. We knew him like the backs of our hands. Maybe we hated him, but most Americans had a hard time pretending that they didn’t understand him. Then again, we also had a good time pretending that we didn’t understand him — but well, whatever, never mind.
That callow, censorious tyro in ’50s newsreels, making his voice empty to make it sound big, whose ghastliness was that he was behaving like a gangster in hopes of winning America’s approval and knew no other way of winning it: Savonarola as a go-getter. The self-consciousness, lashed by invisible whips, that made him seem most hypocritical when he was trying to act human, eyes flickering with a baffled suspicion that these atrocious shenanigans were what some sadist had devised as the native clog dance of congeniality. That awful, grimacing discomfort with himself — holding his body, as Greil Marcus once described Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel, as if it were an enormous clubfoot. The wonderful actor Lane Smith, who played Nixon with beauty in an otherwise dithering miniseries The Final Days, remarked that mimicking Nixon’s body language left him with back and muscle cramps for months. And geez — don’t you wonder what it did to Nixon?
He was our ugliness; we knew it all along. “Sir, there’s a cancer on the Presidency,” said John Dean in the Oval Office one day, doing his lickspittle best to ignore the heaving, purple-fisted mass of malignancy that sprawled across the desk from him, forcing itself to blink out an ingratiating smile through its ooze.
He was what we’re like when we’re alone; he was always alone. Nixon went through life clutching his brain like a pistol — only a pistol, when everyone else had been given brand-new machine guns! How unfair! That must be why he refused a respirator at the end. He wouldn’t have wanted to face the world weaponless.
“Who could love Duddy Kravitz?” asks Duddy Kravitz, scathingly. Who could love Nixon? (His daughters did. And Pat, I suspect, understood him — which is a form of love.) He seemed to like playing the piano. Otherwise, the record of his life includes not a single instance of public warmth, ease, enjoyment, pleasure, humor. (He couldn’t laugh at himself — too many others had.) Only the resentment was authentic. Those who saw him in private recall gestures of awkward kindness that usually, touchingly, took the form of consolation. Alexis de Tocqueville, so often nudged awake by quote mongers like me that he has yet to get a decent night’s sleep in the grave, said that he’d seen more unexplained personal unhappiness in the United States than anywhere else in the world.
Nixon had devotees: William Safire played Bernstein to his Charles Foster Kane. He had peers, who accorded him a grudging professional respect. Did he have any friends?
Garry Wills once confessed his puzzlement that Nixon, a certified intellectual, chose to surround himself with thugs. (Sheesh — didn’t Wills go to high school? I know why.) As president, his idea of relaxation was to hang with Bebe Rebozo, whose brains were in his tan: a good-time dullard, pure Miami — a bit like Brezhnev. I often wonder what they talked about when they plodded the beach at Key Biscayne, Nixon in sand-filled wingtips. Was it like Of Mice and Men: “Tell me again about the Democrats, Dick.” Or perhaps more wistful: “Tell me what it’s like to have fun, Bebe.” Tell me what it’s like to be stupid.
What was Nixon to his fellow WASPs? Why, don’t you know? He was our Jew — our Wandering Jew. Of course, we had to revile him, in his stubborn industry, his bleak and somehow sinister tenacity, his loneliness. That could, incidentally, account for Nixon’s own coarse and somehow overacted, overcompensatory anti-Semitism; it would have been just like him to recognize the affinity and, not needing any more estrangements, shrink from it. If anti-Semitism is the socialism of the ignorant, as Sartre once said (Farrakhan should really bone up on his Sartre: loads of good stuff there, I imagine ), then hatred of Nixon, in its virulence, often ended up looking and sounding uncannily like the good liberal’s substitute for a pogrom.
It served the same purpose, anyway — that of redefining the troubling self one so inchoately despises as Other. Consider how determined we were to deny Nixon not only dignity but humanity: Plastic man! Hollow man! (Self-manufactured man!) We needed to see him as a golem, because only that would absolutely prove that he was no kin to us. If nothing else, we gave him the bitter right to ask, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? … And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” And to warn — skipping down to the next entry in my Bartlett’s — “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
The Shakespeare character to whom Nixon was most often compared used to be Richard III, but that was just liberal lazy-mindedness taking a cheap shot: same first name, they’re both wicked, yar har har. He’s Shylock, isn’t he?
How we needed him. When Nixon resigned, longtime liberal shill Richard Goodwin made the perfect comment. “Now I know how all those kids felt when the Beatles broke up,” he said.
4. The Nixon Presidency, 1969-74
Driving home the afternoon of the day Richard Nixon died, I heard the truculent, slurring voice of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant on a D.C. oldies station. “No, Wa-tergate it does not bother me,” Van Zant, who’s dead as a doornail himself, was sneering. “Does your conscience bother you — tell me true … Sweet Home Alabama …”
Granted, in northern Virginia, where I now reside once again — I last lived here the year Nixon resigned — you can hear “Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio pretty near every day of the week. We have no songs of regional pride of our own, having no regional pride. (We’re about to prove this with our Senate race.) But last Friday, I couldn’t help wondering if some DJ was offering up a tribute.
Remember the Silent Majority? You probably do: they haven’t shut up since. Gore Vidal was the first to note that Nixon’s coinage had been Homer’s term for the dead.
Truculent was the word for them. Nixon diehards often seemed moved to support him out of pure spite, relishing how he stuck in liberal America’s craw. They didn’t really act as if they liked him any better than we did; they just enjoyed the perversity of rooting for him anyway, because they knew that liberal America scorned them as much as it scorned him. How sad for Nixon that his admirers held the same opinion of him as his enemies. Having internalized the elite’s contempt — liberal America’s great sin in the ’60s, as stalwart Ronnie Van Zant well knew — their only available substitute for the pride they’d been denied was to say that they liked being trash, and give the finger. Nixon was the finger.
Yet however enthusiasticallv his followers adopted his sense of rankling injury as their own, Nixon — as he well knew — remained a supremely unlikely, discomfited vessel for Jacksonian populism, even of this revanchist, mutually debasing sort. His vision of governance, after all, was loftier. The last American president to unqualifiedly endorse the Great Man theory of history, he believed in mighty captains, like the primarily European statesmen he took as his benchmarks: De Gaulle, Pitt. He dreamed of a wise and splendid equanimity, nobly steering the nation.
Instead, Nixon brought the idea of leadership into possibly permanent disrepute in this country. The loss may be accounted more his tragedy than ours because he was the one who revered it. As we fumble toward alternatives (First Actor? Chief Clerk?), everyone since has seemed to be impersonating a president, with variable assurance and conviction. Whatever else you think of Nixon — or of the notion of mighty captains, for that matter — he’d have had no trouble conversing as an equal with Richelieu or Disraeli; that can’t be said of his successors. “The last of the titans,” a friend who’d always despised him surprised us both by blurting one afternoon a couple of summers ago. We laughed ruefully.
In office, Nixon had one moment when he was able to realize himself as the hero he’d always dreamed of playing on the world-historical stage. That was the opening to China. Elsewhere, for all his skill, the foreign-policy record is too grim to be grand. Chile was a crime; Europe, by and large, a blunder (declaring a “Year of Europe,” as Nixon and Kissinger did, is a dead giveaway that slights were the norm). And then there was Vietnam.
One interpretation of Nixon’s conduct of the war has it that he staunchly undertook the ignominious chore of extricating us from the unpopular commitment his predecessors had made. The other sees him as a monster, awash to his hips in blood. But what if they’re both true? The invasion of Cambodia, the mining of Haiphong harbor, the Christmas bombing of Hanoi — or “the bombing in the second half of December 1972,” as Kissinger delicately puts it in his Diplomacy — all these were defended as necessary pressures to force the enemy to negotiate. But Nixon, with his fetishistic phobia about being called a quitter, would not have been Nixon if he hadn’t secretly nursed a wild, mad hope that the next throw of the dice would achieve the impossible instead, and win the war outright. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Asian, paid with their lives for his iffy self-esteem.
Domestically, the policies he tried to pursue cut just as harshly against his private grain. Having squeaked into office largely through pandering to racial backlash, he sought to govern according to a perceived consensus that had, in hindsight, an unexpectedly liberal hue. From our post-Reagan vantage point, it’s astonishing how much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Nixon left intact — and not just from caution, but on principle. Meanwhile, in the basement, his men were drawing up the wiretapping orders and the enemies lists.
All right, then: Watergate. Listen, kids. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Nixon was unjustly hounded from office — that’s a bunch of horseshit. But don’t ever let anyone one tell you that it wasn’t done with glee, because that’s a bunch of horseshit, too. That pious guff in the history books about dark days, anxious conclaves, somber pomp? Nonsense! We were euphoric. It was a two-year joyride. Ding-dong, the witch is dead!
“But you said she was dead,” Dorothy blubbers.
“That was the Wicked Witch of the East,” says Glinda, in the dulcet simper of the ineffable Billie Burke. “This is the Wicked Witch of the West …”
(I bet you think I just mean Reagan. You’re wrong.)
Still, for Nixon’s sake, two questions need to be asked. First off: was he great?
I could take the easy way out, but … Swallowing hard, I will say that I often suspect he was. But then, I also think that until this country learns how to say “great” and “awful” in the same breath, it won’t ever understand its history worth a damn. (Until, that is, we admit that Dorothy Gale of Kansas, who is all of us, has a thing for dressing up as· th,e Wicked Witch of the West. Now you know.)
The second question: was he crazy?
In America? Compared to whom? Michael Jackson? Stonewall Jackson? Cotton Mather? Henry Batshit Adams? Ernest Hemingway? Good old Bill Faulkner, who once snapped at his tearful daughter that nobody remembered Shakespeare’s children? Abraham Lincoln, one of Nixon’s more maudlin attempted self-identifications, who if he were alive today would be getting Prozac slammed into him by the bucket load? Death-loving, pill-popping JFK?
5. Jesse Milhous Presley
I have the photograph on a T-shirt I bought at the Nixon Library, where it’s sold with this rubric: “The President and the King.”
As they shake hands, Elvis looks pretty zonked. Greasy eyelids, puffy jowls. That stupid championship belt. Nixon looks uncomfortable, and what else is new?
They could be brothers.
Elvis, of course, never knew his twin Jesse, who died at birth. Nixon’s fun-loving big brother Harold, the family darling, died of TB at 24. Both Elvis and Nixon doted on their mothers, calling them saints. But they both heard trains in the night.
Good boys gone bad. One was best when he was bad, but never believed it. One was bad even when he was good.
I often used to think that Sam Shepard should have written this play back in his prime. When he did, it was his prime: True West. Two brothers fight it out over which of them is the other.
Elvis, despite being Nixon’s junior by a good many years, is clearly the older brother: been there, done that. They younger brother has had to build a personality from negation, out of the bits and scraps of empty space the older one left free. It constricts him. By now, he often mistakes the constriction for skin.
But if they’re brothers, then they must be sons. It’s obvious Elvis is the Prodigal Son. For him, they killed the fatted calf. Judging from his waistline, he’d already eaten it, all by himself. Slurp! Yum!
Though forced to embrace him, the younger son feels scalded. But I’m the Good Son, he thinks. I’m the one who stayed. I did all they asked, terrible though it was. Where’s my fatted calf?
Tonight, alone, his floodlit brain will screech: What more do they want from me! But they never wanted him.
For that, how they will pay.
There was one other big difference between these men.
Never thinking twice about it, the King believed in the American Dream.
The President, to his despair, could not.
6. I Am Nixon
Really, it’s the funniest thing. Turn on the CBS Evening News. Doesn’t Dan Rather look and act just like his old nemesis, Richard Nixon?
But then, a couple of days a week I can’t be any too sure I’d buy a used car from myself, either.
Last Sunday, I called my mom, and her husband answered. Don is a cheerful Republican; he and my Democrat mom constantly spar. (They still argue about FDR at Yalta. They’re nuts.)
“So are you in mourning?” I teased him.
He chortled. “No. But your mother’s all broken up.”
What’s to become of us, now that Nixon’s gone? (My wife just came by: “I’ve got to check the papers. It’s been three days and maybe he’s risen. If anyone could do it …”)
I wonder what music they’ll be playing for him Wednesday afternoon, on that seared lawn in Yorba Linda. Something tougher than Brahms. I somehow doubt it will be this — though we could all sing along, to the tune of “Joe Hill”:
I dreamed I saw the Wicked Witch
Alive as you or me
“But Witch ” I said, “you’re 10 years dead”
“I never died,” says she
“I never die,” says she
But what’s going to be on your headstone, old artificer — old Scratch? HERE LIES A SWARM OF BLACK THING. LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD. I think that I would nominate the words Nabokov used to end The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we are both someone whom neither of us knows.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 19, 2019