Who was Richard Nixon? The question might seem absurd on the face of it, particularly for those who grew up in the 1970s. We saw Nixon as a kind of colossus—the shadowy figure whose triumph (the olive branch to China, historic re-election landslide in 1972) and fall (the disgrace of Watergate, threat of impeachment and ultimate resignation) were touchstones of an era.
Yet 2016 is a good moment to consider Nixon. Seventy years ago, Nixon won his first election—to the U.S. House of Representatives, beating an entrenched liberal Democrat on an anti-Communist platform. Thus began Nixon’s quick, startling and, for an introvert who disliked the necessary glad-handing of politics, improbable ascension to national prominence. (In 1952, the Navy veteran who never saw combat in the South Pacific stood beside Dwight Eisenhower, one of the military heroes of World War II, as Ike’s vice president-to-be.)
We can still feel Nixon’s shadow hovering over our culture and political landscape. In perhaps the best of three recent books on Nixon, the former New York Times reporter Tim Weiner notes that later events have Nixon written all over them. “Ronald Reagan ran covert wars overseas with clandestine funds. His top national security aides were indicted, then pardoned, by George H. W. Bush. Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury,” Weiner writes in One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.
He adds, “George W. Bush’s abuses of power dwarfed Nixon’s—secret prisons, sanctioned torture, limitless eavesdropping, all supported by presidential fiat and secret statues, aided and abetted by Vice President Dick Cheney.” Weiner does not exempt President Obama from criticism, either. “Barack Obama’s administration tormented more reporters and their sources under threat of subpoena or prison than Nixon’s ever did,” Weiner writes.
In the current election, Hillary Clinton might be said to occupy a place similar to Nixon’s when he ran for president in 1968: too familiar to a large swath of the electorate and dogged by a reputation many find questionable. Ted Cruz evoked memories of Nixon’s malevolence. And, of course, Donald J. Trump’s campaign of resentment can be traced back to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that pulled white blue-collar voters out of the Democratic column and into the Republican Party.
None of these new books—which also include Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas, and The Last of the President’s Men,by Bob Woodward— fundamentally alter our view of Nixon, though in the case of Weiner’s book, in particular, the picture darkens. “He dropped bombs and napalm without remorse; he believed they delivered a political message beyond blood and fire,” writes Weiner in his unblinkered portrait of Nixon as he engaged in the tragic and unnecessary (and many would say criminal) bombing of North Vietnam in December 1972. (Much of the book is based on recently declassified documents.)
Fresh from a re-election that could have provided Nixon with a measure of freedom to try something new in Vietnam, Nixon reverted to form—“an unprecedented attack by squadrons of B-52 bombers aimed directly at the capital of North Vietnam, civilian casualties be damned,” Weiner writes. “Start bombing the bejeezus out of them,” Nixon said during planning for the attacks. As the bombing intensified, Nixon crowed: “They are going to scream. They always do.” James Reston of The New York Times, Evan Thomas notes, called the bombing “war by tantrum.” At another point, Nixon told his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, “The best legacy we could leave is to kick the hell out of Vietnam.”
Instead, the legacy proved shameful. During the Christmas bombing, Weiner notes, U.S. planes dropped 15,000 tons of bombs in and around North Vietnam’s capital—“a force greater than each of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he writes.
On the day before Christmas, Nixon wrote in his diary that it was “God’s great gift to me to have the opportunity to exert leadership, not only for America but on the world.” He also wrote: “This, on the one hand, imposes a great responsibility but, of course, at the same time the greatest opportunity an individual could have...the glorious burden of the presidency.”
This is disturbing stuff—as if Vietnam took the brunt of Nixon’s many neuroses, and Nixon saw himself doing God’s work as a “Great Man of History.” The reality was different. Weiner notes that Nixon was often depressed, even unhinged and drank too much as the pressures of Vietnam and Watergate increased.
Weiner paints a similarly troubling portrait of Nixon during the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, in which 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped—“exceeding the tonnage of all Allied bombing during World War II, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
There was something of the Walter Mitty in Nixon, as Thomas notes in his biography—a fine one-volume introduction to the 37th president that, in its quest to be fair to Nixon, misses some of the tragic Shakespearean quality of the man. (Thomas’s book, like the other two, will never supplant Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes, the superb meditation on Nixon, America and post-war power that remains sui generis in the literature about the man.)
In Thomas’s telling, Nixon comes off as shy and awkward, often kind to others in private yet never able to master basic social graces. It is not hard to feel a bit of sympathy for the grocer’s son from Whittier who was offered a scholarship to Harvard but could not take it because his family did not have the money for the trip from California to Cambridge—and then found himself eventually shunned by the Eastern establishment.
That shunning led to paranoia, vindictive spite and fury, as Woodward notes in his book-length portrait of Alexander Butterfield, the White House aide who disclosed the existence of the White House taping system, the ultimate undoing of Nixon’s legal defense in Watergate.
The man Butterfield saw day-to-day was far from sympathetic. As Nixon aged, Butterfield told Woodward, “instead of mellowing, the neuroses intensified and he lumped them all together.” In one of the more absurd examples, Nixon raged over Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, who, with dozens of others, attended a White House ceremony at the invitation of first lady, Pat Nixon. Bok was on Nixon’s enemies list, and Nixon told Butterfield, “I don’t ever want that [expletive] back here on the White House grounds.”
As to the Nixons’ marriage, the president often ignored his wife, both in public and private, Butterfield recalled. In a book that feels a bit like a stretched-out magazine article, Woodward says that Butterfield “concluded that Pat was what he called a ‘borderline abused’ wife.”
Butterfield said Nixon was too often self-absorbed—not an unusual trait in a president, certainly. But Nixon seemed to take that self-absorption to new heights. Even Thomas, in his attempt to be fair to Nixon, sees Nixon as a broody loner who seemed not to enjoy even being president. Eternally plagued by insomnia, Nixon was a self-punishing and isolated figure, thinking of himself, pathetically, as a historic figure along the lines of Mao Zedong or Charles de Gaulle.
“Nixon’s strengths were his weaknesses,” Thomas concludes. “The drive that propelled him also crippled him. The underdog’s sensitivity that made him farsighted also blinded him. He wanted to show that he was hard because he felt soft. He learned how to be popular because he felt rejected. He was the lonely everyman to the end.”
Unfortunately, those weaknesses led to Nixon’s downfall: The paranoia over Vietnam seamlessly resulted in the dirty tricks of Watergate. They also had deleterious consequences for the North Vietnamese and others who dared to defy this strange, troubled and tragic figure—a man who, almost a quarter-century since his death, still casts a shadow over our national life.