Excerpted from an essay by Tom Wicker:
Richard Nixon was an introvert in the extroverted calling of the politician. And as if that were not problem enough for him, he was an intellectual appealing to a public that puts low value on eggheads. I don't mean an intellectual in the stereotypical sense of a cloistered scholar; I mean that Nixon was a highly intelligent man who relied greatly on his own intelligence and that of others, who had a considerable capacity to read and understand technical papers, who retreated to a room alone and wrote in longhand on a yellow legal pad the gist of his major speeches, who impressed associates with his ability to evaluate disinterestedly the pros and cons of a problem, who in the opinion of Arthur Burns, whom he appointed to head the Federal Reserve, could have "held down a chair in political science or law in any of our major universities."
Any number of Richard Nixon's associates will tell you that glad-handing and pressing the flesh did not come naturally or congenially to him. When closely observed, he always seemed somehow ill at ease. His gestures when he spoke-- the counting of points on the fingers, the arms upstretched in the victory sign or sweeping around his body like a matador flicking a cape before a bull--the body language always seemed a little out of sync with what he was saying, as if a sound track were running a little ahead of or behind its film.
Lyndon Johnson once called him a "chronic campaigner," but Nixon actually shrank from the accustomed rituals of politics. In an interview early in his career, he told the columnist Stewart Alsop: "I'm fundamentally relatively shy. It doesn't come naturally to me to be a buddy-buddy boy ... I can't really let my hair down with anyone." Yet he forced himself to engage, sometimes even to excel, in the exhibitionary skills of campaigning over a political career that lasted nearly thirty years -- a remarkably successful career during which he served in both houses of Congress and as Vice President, was twice elected President of the United States, and became the only American other than Franklin Roosevelt to be nominated by a major party on five national tickets....
Early in life Nixon seems to have thrown in his lot with those he called the "have-nots" rather than on the side of those he once described to his former aide Ken Clawson as having everything and therefore "sitting on their fat butts." As a freshman at Whittier College he helped organize the Orthogonians, a men's club in sharp contrast to the existing Franklins. "Orthogonian" meant "Square Shooters," Nixon explained in his memoirs; and in the college yearbook, Franklins were pictured in tuxedos while Orthogonians wore open-necked shirts, as befitted what Nixon termed "athletes and men who were working their way through school."
The Franklin-Orthogonian distinction is a constant in Nixon's life. His first major opponents, Jerry Voorhis, a millionaire banker's son, and Helen Gahagan Douglas, a famous actress and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, could be seen as Franklins. So could his first most prominent victim, the elegant diplomat Alger Hiss. Two of his most frequent Democratic targets, Adlai Stevenson and Dean Acheson, surely were Franklins. John F. Kennedy, rich and cool as Nixon would never be, obviously was another. Whether or not Nixon actually saw these adversaries as Franklins, their presence and manner are bound to have whetted his class instinct; and Kennedy's disputed victory in 1960 must have been the more crushing because of it....
Is it too much to suppose, then that Richard Nixon suffered from feelings of inadequacy and was lacking in a sense of self-worth? That he felt bitterness toward those gifted Franklins in their tuxedos to whom good things came easily and who thus deserved them less? A decade after he resigned the presidency, he told Ken Clawson:
"...what starts the process really are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid...But if you are reasonably intelligent and if 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 on their fat butts..."
I believe it is possible to see the life of Richard Nixon as a long, relentless effort to "change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance." .... It's easy to say, and it often is said, that had Nixon come clean about Watergate in the beginning, when he had no direct responsibility, the affair would quickly have blown over and he would have survived. That may be true, but it ignores the fact that the man Richard Nixon was by 1972 couldn't come clean.
What actual excesses or even crimes he might have believed he had to cover up are still a matter of speculation; but with his view of life as battle and crisis as challenge, his determination to prove his worth, particularly to himself, his consequent inability to "give up" and his reluctance to show weakness, as well as his conviction that through "personal gut performance" any height could be scaled--for all those reasons, it would have been impossible for Nixon to do anything but fight back, stand fast, "stonewall" his enemies.
So he did--and the indelible marks Richard Nixon left on American history are Watergate and his resignation from the presidency before he could be impeached. Those events cause many to believe him an evil man who schemed to subvert the Constitution; they cause others to consider him a victim of the press, the liberals, the Democrats, even the CIA or the Pentagon. And looking back at Watergate, many Americans can't see beyond it the achievements of a president who often responded to the pressures of his time with knowledge and skill and sometimes even with courage--qualities the American people apparently don't find in most of their leaders today.
As a reporter, I interviewed, traveled with, reported on, and deplored Richard Nixon's actions for much of his career. As a columnist, I frequently criticized his presidency. Later, after his political career was ended, I studied Nixon and his record, talked to his friends and enemies, reviewed my own words and memories, and concluded that he was neither evil nor a victim, except of himself--and we're all that kind of victim.
| Welcome | Broadcast | Essays | Forum | Quotes | Links | Home |