The International Writers Magazine: NIXON
It seemed he was always there. In l946 Richard Milhouse Nixon as a new Congressman gravitated into our frontal lobes, remained in residence for decades, and aged as an intense memory. He died in l994.
Hated by Democrats, tolerated by Republicans and Independents, never embraced, but through force of circumstance, always considered, he lasted longer than his contemporaries. Even following his Presidential resignation in l975, he remained in the public consciousness (aided by deliberate design), for nearly twenty years. He wrote books, gave speeches, sat for television and newspaper interviews (where he did not discuss the past as much as he did the future, its promises and dangers) We listened, we read, and we wondered about the man from California. It became a cliché, is there a “New Nixon?”
As I write this, 2013, he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Do we think of him the same way we did when he was a national leader? Due to the degree of assorted incompetents that followed him in the Oval Office, has his image brightened?
The question poses a generic philosophical (philosophical-psychological) problem: do people really change, or is it the historical times that change? Was the Richard Nixon of l994 a different man than Congressman Nixon of l946, or Senator Nixon of l950-51 and then Vice President Nixon or the defeated Presidential Candidate Nixon of l960, or defeated California Gubernatorial Candidate Nixon of l962, or the elected President then re-elected President of l969 or 1972? Or the disgraced United States President forced to resign in l974? Or the elder statesman residing in luxury at “Casa Pacifica,’’ a Spanish Colonial house overlooking the Pacific Ocean at San Clemente, California? See what I mean? He’s always there.
Nixon kept hovering around us, some would say, below us, does that mean in some way he defined us?
That is another interesting question, and includes, by the ubiquity of Nixon’s history, a perennial problem: Does a Democracy elect politicians they deserve? A quick look at the world history of Democracy shows a mixed bag. Socrates was not, of course, elected to office, or a candidate for anything, but it was a Democracy that executed him. Hitler was elected Chancellor by a German Democracy that Adolph destroyed soon after his election. On the other side of the argument, an Athenian Democracy chose Pericles its leader, and twice the United States elected Abraham Lincoln as its President, something historians forget when claiming how Lincoln, the candidate, was ridiculed by the press. Ridiculed or not, he was twice elected President! And when claiming democracies deserve their leaders, never forget our founding fathers; no way did the l3 colonies deserve that quirky band of geniuses.
Nixon’s fantastic career was a composite of the good and the bad. Certainly, the good were his political and statesman-like achievements, his trip to China, détente, etc., have been told many times over. Nixon would have accepted this accolade. He liked to think of himself as a man who came through under pressure, a professional more sinned against than sinning. Everybody was against him, yet he stayed the course, never gave up, and got the job done. His “farewell speech” as President, stressed he would have never imagined himself leaving office by his own volition since he was “not a quitter.” He earlier had said during the beginning of the Watergate scandal that he was “not a crook.”
In fact, he was a crook, and a liar, someone who felt sorry for himself, lashing out at others in what Nixon considered self-protective actions. He felt he needed protection. He was always the victim.
The man spent a lifetime in politics operating with a near fatal handicap, he had no charm, a failing that has never helped anyone in the public eye. Perhaps the President most dissimilar to Nixon was Ronald Reagan who in his self-assured security didn’t seem to care much what people thought of him. The result was an easy going persona that helped get him over those rough spots everyone encounters, particularly when they are President of the United States.
You sensed with Richard Nixon that you didn’t need really know the man to understand he had to be unpleasant to deal with. You didn’t associate Nixon with the humor that you did with Reagan or JFK. He always projected a ponderous, clumsy, light weight solemnity, he could never shake. There was no “lightness of being” to the personality of Richard Nixon. In the old sense of the word, no gayness was present inside him. In a way this was a sign of character, how could Nixon exist inside that obvious pressure cooker world of his without a release? He often drank, some claiming he was drunk every night during the Watergate period. When you think about it, this is not surprising. He certainly needed some way of escaping himself.
Another way Nixon tried escape himself was to self-dramatize. He was forever the underdog, the guy everyone was out to get. This seemed to create personal unhappiness even when winning an election, or being honored for anything else he accomplished. Many observers noticed after political victories, he didn’t really celebrate. Hidebound by demons that clutched at him, demons galloping after him even after great political victories, these psychological tentacles were very real to the man from Yorba Linda, California.
Here are five of those tentacles existing side by side, and there probably existed a lot more:
A grandiose self, convinced of his moral and political excellence.
A “hungry self,” a paranoid personality, trapped by self-destructive behavior.
A peacemaker, the man who could bring people & nations together.
A constant spouting of hyperbole, a need to regard his accomplishments as historic and unique.
A “hold” put on him by “bourgeoisie values,” including an inane need to always be in the “arena.” The old axiom, “ït didn’t matter if you won or lost it was how you played the game,” was turned into: “it’s not how you played the game, but only never sit it out.” Life was competitive (in fact, that was about all life was to him) and one must try and win at all costs. One would think “riding out’’ a contest in which Nixon had no connection politically, ethically or morally, would be a smart strategy, no prestige or misinterpretations risked, etc. “But that would be,” as Nixon would say, “the easy way.”
You need not be a philosopher to see how easily a philosophy concentrating on simply entering the “arena” can become unethical. No wonder Nixon was just that, his whole philosophy encompassed the unethical. His tapes are filled with comments about how such and such a nefarious action can be taken, then Nixon would bleat to everyone in the room, ‘’let us remember that it would be wrong to do it, ” and a then hurry back to further discussion about the duplicitous action under consideration.
Nixon is often described as a Shakespearian character. This directly and indirectly equates him with Kings and Princes battling heroic odds, and by so doing gives him too much credit. He was more riddled with traumas of the ordinary man, a Willy Loman like character, weak and filled with admiration of the large man of authority that exuded power. John Connally appealed to him, a kind of larger than life character. Nixon wanted Connally to succeed him as President. Nixon’s reason for being so affected by Eisenhower’s death was that Eisenhower “was such a strong man.” By strong, read powerful.
Krushchev, of all people, sensed the Willy Loman in Nixon, remarking that he was a typical crafty bourgeoisie businessman, on the make.
Since those with money were often powerful, Nixon looked up to money. It is said that when David Frost originally proposed to the series of interviews with Nixon, he was turned flatly down. When Frost offered him $500,000 for the interviews, the former President expressed interest (he eventually received $600,000 plus a percentage of the profits). No one has ever understood why Nixon failed to burn his famous tapes. Perhaps the reason is too obvious: if the tapes were known to be filled with erasures, they would lose their value on the open market.
A supposition, of course. Perhaps someday it will be revealed why a President refused to burn what certainly would have convicted him at an impeachment trial. Regardless, monetary consideration should never be ruled out when examining the career of Richard Nixon.
The man, despite his intentions to keep his past and present life a secret to everyone (except the staged birthdays, etc.) has become more or less an open book. Why didn’t he burn the tapes? For a man who spent so much time involved in secret activities it seemed a no brainer, one that could be accomplished with a minimum of time, space, and hassle.
But with Nixon, it was hard to figure out some things without cold, hard facts to guide you. Trouble with this (in regard to the tapes) is most of his staff didn’t know about them, thus they were nor gossiped about. Few really knew the petty, secretive actions of the 37th President of the United States, and those that did were themselves not of a very high moral level.
He was not a man without abilities, and at the same time he had a genius for messing himself up. His mistakes were grandiose, the execution of those inept plans delegated to fumblers that exacerbated them. Nixon didn’t recognize good character when he saw it. The reason is obvious.
No, he was not representative of us as a people. Most of us are at least reasonably honest. We were and are not brethren to the oily fellow who either ruled or helped rule us for so long. Whether or not we deserved him as leader is another matter. When a democracy flops and flounders with no real sense of direction, it is an invitation for the Richard Nixons of the world to surface. There are many of them out there. That hardly makes it a good thing. We certainly shouldn’t remember Nixon with nostalgia. Nor should we for a second forget who and what he was - a loathsome and frightening creature. If you don’t think so, listen to or read the tape transcripts, and then imagine such a man as President of the United States. The tapes are repugnant and at times surreal. They are Richard Nixon.
© James Morford August 2013
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