Frank Gannon: Finally getting to know Nixon

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Gannon was a special assistant to President Nixon and the chief editorial assistant for "RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon" (1978).]

On Aug. 8, 1974, the night Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Henry Kissinger assured him that history would judge him to be one of America's great presidents. "That depends, Henry," Nixon replied, "on who writes the history."

Rick Perlstein, the author of the recent "Nixonland" -- an 896-page argument that Nixon's malign influence on postwar American politics reflected the malignity of his own soul -- has now edited "Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents." It is the latest in the James Madison Library in American Politics, of which Sean Wilentz, the eminent Princeton professor, is the general editor.

The idea of collecting the 37th president's miscellaneous prose is excellent and overdue. Some of Nixon's most important writings -- for instance, 1967's "Asia After Viet Nam," where he first advanced the idea of bringing Red China in from the cold -- have been unavailable for a long time or hard to find. In a general editor's introduction, Mr. Wilentz states that this collection will be "the autobiography [Nixon] did not write" -- which is awkward because Mr. Perlstein's first selection is from "RN" (1978), the 1,038-page autobiography Mr. Nixon did write.

In Mr. Perlstein's own long introduction -- 56 pages (out of 272) that might have been devoted to reprinting more Nixon material -- he gets one of the "Six Crises" wrong (the 1950 Senate race didn't make Nixon's list). He misplaces the site of the Watergate break-in, putting it in the hotel instead of the office building. And he misses the date of Nixon's farewell speech ("My mother was a saint") by a day.

More important, Mr. Perlstein presents a familiar bogey: a Nixon whose badness was bred in the bone; the family Nixon grew up in "was a churning stewpot of shame and stubborn pride, haunted by a sense of unearned persecutions." The footnotes for such an interpretation cite the writings of partisans and polemicists including Fawn Brodie, William Costello, Christopher Hitchens and Maureen Dowd. It will be interesting to see how soon Mr. Wilentz bestows the Madison Library's imprimatur on a JFK volume whose scholarship is based on Seymour Hersh's "The Dark Side of Camelot" or Nigel Hamilton's "JFK: Reckless Youth."

Mr. Perlstein's thesis is that Nixon's life was driven by serial resentments of the elites who scorned him. An early manifestation of this pathology is supposed to have occurred when Nixon, a freshman at Whittier College, founded the Orthogonians ("Square Shooters"). In Mr. Perlstein's view, the new club was intended to be a refuge for those who had been snubbed by the fancy Franklin Society. He makes much of the fact that Franklins donned tuxedos for their yearbook photos while Orthogonians sported open-necked shirts. "Franklins were well-rounded, graceful; they moved smoothly, talked slickly," he writes. "Nixon's new club, the Orthogonians, was for the strivers, the commuter students, those not to the manor born."

But Whittier College in 1930 was a culturally homogeneous Quaker-based community that reflected the middle-class towns from which the majority of its students were drawn. Whittier was a commuter campus. In any case, Nixon was from one of Whittier's "better" families; he owned a tuxedo. The Orthogonians were in fact jocks or would-be jocks (like Nixon), hardly bitter outcasts with their noses pressed resentfully against the glass. Nixon was elected president of every freshman and senior class from eighth grade through law school. If he later resented political and academic "elites," it was because they kept screwing him over, not because he wanted to be one of them.

A much more shrewd and realistic portrayal of Nixon can be found in Conrad Black's "Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full." As in his 2003 biography of FDR, Lord Black combines a mastery of his material with elegant (if occasionally overreaching) prose; and he brings a worldly outlook and sophisticated analysis to his subject. He admires Nixon's accomplishments, but his book is hardly hagiography....

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Maarja Krusten - 8/30/2008

Just to make it clear, I do not associate with the Nixon Foundation the risk in discussing when archival materials will be released. I believe the risks lie elsewhere. Mostly a gut feeling, reading of the tea leaves, and a deeply ingrained sense of how these things can work. Indeed, I've been chatting very comfortably with foundation director John Taylor over at the New Nixon Blog,

Maarja Krusten - 8/30/2008

Interesting essay. I’m surprised Frank Gannon didn’t link to it at the New Nixon website where he blogs (but doesn’t respond often to comments). I'll have to look at the site. I may let him know HNN linked to this.

To get a sense of Conrad Black’s take on Nixon, see

Michael Nelson reviewed Robert Dallek’s book on Nixon and Kissinger and Conrad Black’s on Nixon in the Chronicle of Higher Education on July 20, 2007. Nelson noted that Black wrote that
"As for Nixon himself, he 'thought that he was doomed to be traduced, double-crossed, unjustly harassed, misunderstood, underappreciated, and subjected to the trials of Job, but that by the application of his mighty will, tenacity, and diligence he would ultimately prevail'."

Some day I will read Perlstein’s book and Black’s book. The reason I have not is that reviews suggest that neither author did a great deal of research in primary sources at the National Archives’ Nixon Project and Nixon Presidential Library. Since I once worked there, I obviously know what is on and in the released (and some unreleased) tapes and files. Naturally, I’m more interested in reading books that draw on records that have been released than those that rely primarily on secondary sources.

Mr. Gannon makes a good point about the Whittier of 1930. I myself believe that many of Nixon's resentments rose to the surface after his terribly narrow loss to JFK in 1960 in an election which, had there not been problems with the vote in Illinois, he might have won. Who knows what might have happened if he had contested the election—something he chose not to do for the good of the country. An aside: Last year, the beautifully crafted AMC series, Mad Men, provided an interesting take on the election of 1960 from the perspective of an advertising agency working on behalf of Nixon. The series seems to capture very well what it was like to work in advertising during the early 1960s.

Conrad Black offers some interesting insights into Nixon’s battles to control his archival records. He wrote in MacClean’s that soon after Nixon resined from office in 1974, “the Senate, by a vote of 56 to 7, purported to instruct the president to retain control of all Nixon's papers and tapes, abrogating the agreement Ford's and Nixon's lawyers had worked out. The Senate thus began a long legal battle that Nixon would finally, after many years, win decisively, in one of the great moral victories of his life.”

Black adds, “Once the hysteria against him had fully subsided, the courts could not sustain a different treatment of him compared with other presidents, and his literary executors eventually won control of the materials, but the struggle was still unfolding more than 30 years after he left the White House. Again, the post-presidential Nixon would have the best of the dispute: his right to his documents was upheld, and his executors ultimately have a greater level of ownership of his materials than would any other modern president. Nixon's legendary tenacity did not abate in his life and did not die with him.”

This appears to imply that Nixon’s estate, rather than the National Archives, controls what scholars will see from Nixon’s archival records at the Nixon Project and Nixon Presidential Library. (Nixon’s predecessors had been allowed to treat their White House records as personal property, deeding portions to the Archives through deeds of gift with donor restrictions determining what could be opened for research.) However, while he appears to be using the term control to mean intellectual access, Black may just be referring to the narrower issue of monetary compensation for the seizure of Nixon’s tapes and files.

While it is true that the National Archives abandoned in recent years a planned schedule of new releases from Nixon’s tapes every 2 or so years (1,000 hours remain to be released), that disclosures came to a halt after 2003 is not necessarily due to actions by Nixon’s estate. Actually, I’ve concluded that the question of the halt in disclosures by the National Archvies is a very, very risky area for anyone to mention or question, much less try to dig into deeply. Even I, who am outspoken on such issues, don’t mention the halt very much now. Scholars, of course, for the most part have remained quiet for a long, long time on this type of issue, anyway, LOL.