Sunday, August 9, 2009
Nixon pro and con
Today is the 35th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation. It's typical of my obsession with him that on the day he died, I wrote not one but two columns about him, each disagreeing with the other. I ran them side by side. Here they are:
Tricky Dick And Me: OK, I know you’re wondering: After trashing Nixon all these years, am I finally going to say something nice about him now that he’s dead?
Forget it. I just hope they remembered to pound in the wooden stake.
This is the man who disgraced the presidency, remember? For true Nixon-haters like me, Watergate came as no surprise: It just confirmed what we had known all along. As Harry Truman put it, “Nixon can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and even if he caught himself saying the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.”
Or Adlai Stevenson: “Nixon is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree and then mount the stump to make a speech about conservation.”
Or Wilfred Sheed: “Nixon without his sanctimony is a man half-dressed.”
Why did I despise him so? Not because of ideology: I never felt that way about Reagan, who was much more of a true believer.
It was because Nixon fought dirty. Starting with his first election, against Jerry Voorhis in 1946, he got what he wanted by accusing whoever stood in his way of treason.
He did it in every campaign he ever fought, from the notorious “Pink Lady” leaflets he used against Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 to his running mate Spiro Agnew’s charge that Hubert Humphrey was “squishy soft on communism” in 1968.
Ironically, Watergate revealed that the real traitor was Nixon himself. (And if you think “traitor” is a bit strong, what else would you call someone who conspires to subvert the Constitution?)
You could always tell when Nixon was getting ready to stick a knife in someone’s back: His eyes would shift and his face would take on that look of unctuous sanctimony that made him the Uriah Heep of American politics.
I know, I know, I’m irrational about him. It started in childhood. My parents were staunch New Dealers, and Nixon was the bogeyman my mother threatened me with if I didn’t eat my lima beans.
And it wasn’t just propaganda. One of the janitors in my father’s warehouse was a man named Hal Smith. He had been a successful Hollywood screenwriter -- he won an Oscar for writing “The Defiant Ones” -- before he got hauled before Nixon and his pals on the House Un-American Activities Committee. After that, he was lucky to get a janitor’s job.
Since then, it’s turned into a full-blown obsession. I find myself compulsively collecting Nixon trivia, including:
• When he was at Whittier College, he got turned down by the “in” club, the Franklins. So he formed his own club, which he named the Orthogonians (squares). Their motto, invented by Nixon himself: “Beans, Brawn, Brains and Bowels.” (Freudians make of that what you will.)
• His nickname during those college years was “iron butt.” (Starting to see a pattern here?)
• While he was courting Pat, he’d drive her on her dates with other men.(Such delicious masochism!)
• When he was in the Navy, he was known as “Nick Nixon,” the best poker player in the South Pacific. Legend has it that he came out of the war with a $5,000 roll, which he used as seed money for his first congressional campaign.
Incidentally, did you know you can listen to the Watergate tapes? They’re in a nondescript building in Alexandria, VA, where the National Archives stores all its Nixon material. They’ll let you listen to whatever you want, and let me tell you, it’s a revelation.
It’s still a shock to hear the President of the United States plotting crimes in the Oval Office. (And contrary to popular myth, he never said “but it would be wrong.”)
And if you’re really nice, they’ll let you see the warehouse next door, where they store the official gifts that Nixon got as president.
Remember the warehouse in the last scene of “Raiders of the Lost Arc”? That’s what it looks like. On one shelf, I saw a pair of nickel-plated revolvers (given to him by Elvis Presley) right next to one of those plastic praying hands that light up when you plug it in.
And next to that is a priceless, 5,000 year-old gold statue that was given to Nixon by Anwar Sadat.
“They were taking a tour of the Cairo Museum,” explained curator Sue Ellen Stanley, “and as they were passing a case, Sadat said, ‘See anything you like?’ Nixon said, ‘Yeah, third from the right.’ So Sadat reached in, pulled it out, and said, ‘Here.’”
So why don’t I feel happier? Why aren’t I dancing in the streets, singing “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead”? Why am I feeling -- oh no! -- nostalgic?
I hate to admit it, but I think I’m going to miss the old crook.
After all, I won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.
Requiem For A Lonely Man: I just read the column on the left, and a meaner, pettier piece I’ve never read. It has a bitterness worthy of Nixon himself.
The fact that I also wrote it makes it even worse. Mind you, I meant every word I said. But it’s typical of this gifted, troubled man that, having trashed him in one column, I feel compelled to write another one taking it all back.
What was it about him that made people like me go off the deep end? I think it was because, as much as we hate to admit it, he was the true mirror of our national soul.
We want to think we’re like Jack Kennedy -- handsome, graceful, a hit with the girls. But the truth is, most of us are like Nixon -- insecure, resentful, and compulsively self-destructive.
I think of that picture of him, circa 1970, walking alone along the beach at San Clemente, the waves washing over his perfectly-polished black wing-tips. How we laughed when we saw that.
Or the night of the Kent State shootings, when he tried to talk with protesters at the Lincoln Memorial by making chitchat about football. How we laughed when we heard that.
Or of his college days, when the only way he could make the football team was to let them use him as a human tackling dummy. How we laughed when we read that.
It feels good to make fun of the class nerd. It makes you feel like part of the “in” crowd, even if you aren’t.
Especially when you can feel so self-righteous doing it. After all, this was Nixon the red-baiter, second only to Joe McCarthy as the arch-villain of the 1950s. He deserved all the bad things that happened to him, didn’t he?
Yes and no. Sure, he looked silly talking about touchdowns and field goals to students who wanted to talk about war and peace. But it was the closest he could come to extending a hand. And we slapped it away, laughing at his lame style.
To a paranoid like Nixon, it must have been another confirmation of what life had been teaching him since childhood: He really was surrounded by enemies.
“What starts the process, really,” he wrote about his passion for winning, “are the laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid. But if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by personal gut performance.”
And make no mistake about it, Nixon had a childhood that would make anyone paranoid. When he was 12, his younger brother Arthur died of meningitis.
Then his older brother Harold was stricken with tuberculosis. The only way their mother could pay the doctor bills was to run a clinic for other children with TB. She nursed them all, watching them die one by one, until Harold died five years later.
Harold's illness ate up what little money the family had. As a result, Nixon had to turn down a scholarship offer from Harvard and save money by attending little Whittier College instead. (No wonder he was so jealous of the Kennedys.)
At law school, he shared a one-room shack that had no plumbing or electricity. He shaved in the men's room of the library. He never once went out on a date; he couldn’t afford it. Later, when he married Pat, she had to use her own savings to buy the wedding ring.
And yet this loser, through sheer effort of will, transformed himself into a winner. A lot of us thought he sold his soul in the process. But who among us are without sin? Our beloved Jack Kennedy’s record isn’t so hot when it comes to the McCarthy era, either. (Jack gave money to McCarthy’s Senate campaign, and Bobby was chief counsel for McCarthy’s committee.) And remember, it was the Kennedys, not Nixon, who authorized the FBI wiretaps on Martin Luther King.
Ironically, in the last few weeks some secret KGB files have come to light, and it turns out that some of the people Nixon accused of espionage really were spies, after all. The list may even include that hallowed liberal icon, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Nixon never admitted he went overboard, but I don’t hear any liberals admitting that maybe where there was smoke there was fire.
And whatever Nixon’s public sins, in private he stacks up pretty well against other recent presidents.
There was no womanizing, like JFK. No sadistic humiliation of underlings, like LBJ.
And look at the sincere, unfeigned grief Nixon’s daughters are showing. Can you imagine Patty Davis feeling that way about Ronnie or Nancy?
I know, it doesn’t make up for Watergate. All I’m saying is that Nixon was speaking for us all when he pronounced his own epitaph the day he resigned: “Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”
Honor him for his accomplishments. And as for his dark side, there but for the grace of God go we.