Our Most Peculiar President

How did a man with such a hard-right reputation become one of the most liberal presidents ever?

The Wall Street Journal

JUN 19, 2015


By Evan Thomas 
Random House, 619 pages, $35


By Tim Weiner 
Henry Holt, 369 pages, $30

Has the United States ever had a weirder president than Richard Nixon? The fact that his only close competitors in this regard are his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, and his indirect successor, Jimmy Carter, could help to explain why the ’60s and ’70s were such troubled times for this country. But even LBJ (who loved to lecture aides while sitting on the toilet) and Mr. Carter (who claimed to have been attacked by a “killer rabbit” and to have experienced “lust in his heart”) could not match Nixon for sheer bizarreness. Evan Thomas’s terrifically engaging biography contains many choice examples.

 In 1968, Nixon “invited Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman, up to his room and offered him a drink while declining one himself. Realizing that refusing a drink seemed a little prissy, he said to Cronkite, ‘I tell you what, I’ll have a sherry.’ But that didn’t sound like one of the boys either, so he blurted, ‘In fact, I’ll have a double sherry.’ ”

 “At formal White House dinners, Nixon would position himself to talk to ‘as few people as possible,’ with instructions that no conversation was to last more than five minutes. This was to be rigidly enforced; conversations were to be broken off in mid-sentence if necessary.”

“In St. Petersburg, Florida, a policeman was severely injured when his motorcycle flipped over while driving in the presidential motorcade. In his considerate way, Nixon rushed from his limousine to express his sympathies. As was also his way, he didn’t know what to say, blurting to the policeman who lay bleeding on the ground, ‘Do you like your work?’ ”

These are just three lesser-known illustrations of Nixon’s legendary awkwardness. More famous examples include his 1970 Oval Office meeting with the drug-addled Elvis Presley,whom he deputized as a federal agent in the war on illegal drugs; his predawn visit in 1970 to the Lincoln Memorial, valet in tow, where he engaged in a rambling and loopy conversation with a group of dazed hippies; and his jocular comment to David Frost,before an interview in 1976, “Well, did you do any fornicating this weekend?”

The common theme running through all these anecdotes is that Nixon simply did not know how to interact with people. Yet instead of choosing to spend his life in a monastery or at an accounting office, Nixon chose the most public occupation imaginable. He was, as Mr. Thomas notes, “an introvert in an extrovert’s business,” and it was through sheer force of will that he became “a tireless hand-shaker and baby-kisser.” Indeed, so skilled did he become as a politician that he won four national elections, two as vice president, two as president, the last of these (in 1972) by the widest margin then recorded.

This is only one of the many paradoxes that Mr. Thomas, a prolific and talented biographer, explores in “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” a book that might best be called a psychobiography. Except that it is mercifully devoid of any psychological jargon. While breaking no scholarly ground, Mr. Thomas presents a fair, insightful and highly entertaining portrait of the 37th president. That’s something that Nixon himself would no doubt have had a hard time imagining, because Mr. Thomas (grandson of Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas; graduate of Phillips Andover, Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School; and a longtime writer at Newsweek) is a paid-up member of the Eastern Establishment that Nixon so loathed and that so amply returned his animosity.

In one memorable example cited by Mr. Thomas, the British ambassador to Washington,John Freeman, remembered being asked in 1969 by Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the society doyenne, what he thought of President Nixon. He gave a “respectful reply.” “Alice then hushed up the whole company, saying in her wickedest voice, ‘How extraordinary! Listen. The Ambassador thinks well of Mr. Nixon! Such a common little man!’ ” Alice Roosevelt Longworth was a lifelong Republican and actually friends with Nixon. Mr. Thomas, rather than belittling Nixon, as so many others have done at excruciating length, tries to understand this “fantastically contradictory and intriguing figure who set out to change the world and, for better or worse, did just that.”

The paradoxes are legion, and Mr. Thomas does them full justice. Nixon was, for example, someone who “disliked personal confrontation of any kind.” In 1969, while he was on the phone with Henry Kissinger, the national security adviser, discussing sending troops to Cambodia, he said, “Wait a minute. Bebe has something to say to you.” Thereupon Nixon’s friend Bebe Rebozo came on the line to say what Nixon couldn’t bring himself to say: “The President wants you to know, Henry, that if this doesn’t work out, it’s your ass.” And rather than fire his secretary of the interior, Walter Hickel, for leaking a letter critical of him, Nixon instead ordered the removal of the White House tennis court, which was “used by Hickel and other cabinet officers, but not by Nixon.” Little wonder that when, deep in the throes of the Watergate scandal, Nixon had to get rid of his closest aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, he was “crying uncontrollably.”

Yet, Mr. Thomas notes, Nixon “seemed to welcome public confrontation,” especially with reporters. “Remember, the press is the enemy,” he told speechwriter William Safire. And he certainly acted like it by placing prominent media personages on his infamous “enemies list.” Nixon seemed equally to revel in confrontations with peaceniks, annoying them every chance he got by making his much-parodied “V” gesture (signifying “victory” rather than “peace”). When protesters flipped him the bird, he flipped them off right back. He called antiwar demonstrators “bums” right before the Kent State shooting in 1970.

Nixon abhorred Ivy Leaguers almost as much as reporters and hippies. A benchwarmer on the Whittier College football team, he spouted contempt for their “frilly games, squash and crew.” He told Haldeman, while preparing for a government reshuffle after his re-election: “No goddamn Harvard men, you understand! Under no conditions.” And then he proceeded to hire or promote, among others, Henry Kissinger (Harvard), Elliot Richardson (Harvard), James Schlesinger (Harvard), Caspar Weinberger (Harvard) and George Shultz (Princeton).

Likewise Nixon spewed anti-Semitic bile (“Most Jews are disloyal”) while filling his administration with Jews like Safire, Mr. Kissinger, Leonard Garment, Arthur Burns and Herbert Stein. Much more significantly, when Israel was invaded by Arab armies in 1973, Nixon risked Arab and Soviet wrath in mounting the massive airlift of supplies that allowed the Jewish state to survive. One of the most stirring scenes in Mr. Thomas’s book is the depiction of Nixon cutting through bureaucratic obstacles to get the cargo planes to Israel when they were needed most. “Do it, now,” he ordered a recalcitrant Defense Department. “Tell them to send everything that can fly.”

In a similar vein, Nixon engaged in vile racist invective in private, yet he had been the Eisenhower administration’s point man on civil rights and took the lead “in steering government contracts to black businesses.” As president, he presided over the peaceful desegregation of Southern schools. When he took office, Mr. Thomas notes, “68 percent of black children in the South attended all-black schools. By 1972, only 8 percent did.”

Such examples demonstrate the sharp distinction between how Nixon talked and how he acted. He often engaged in bluster and tough-guy posturing behind closed doors, but usually—though far from always—he knew better than to act on his darker impulses. On Aug. 29, 1969, Nixon was having a drink at his San Clemente estate when he got word that Palestinians had hijacked a TWA airplane and landed in Damascus. “Bomb the airport,” Nixon barked. Mr. Kissinger decided not to take the president at his word, and he never heard anything more about it. (All the passengers were eventually released.)

Similarly, Mr. Thomas writes, “Nixon would routinely cut off all White House contact with reporters from papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post—‘cut him,’ ‘freeze him,’ ‘dump him’—and then just as routinely forget about it.” Nixon had no intention of carrying out his bloodcurdling threats; he expected his staff to protect him from himself. One of the reasons he got into trouble with Watergate is that he hired overzealous aides, such as John Dean and Chuck Colson, who were willing to take him at his word when he ranted about what he wanted done to those “sons of bitches,” i.e., his political enemies. The damage was compounded when the White House tapes were released. Americans who had never heard any other president’s private conversations (and certainly not JFK’s or LBJ’s salty monologues) were shocked by Nixon’s profane, vindictive and paranoid conversations.

One of the enduring mysteries of Richard Nixon is why someone who had such a hard-right reputation turned out to be one of the most liberal presidents ever. He increased spending on Social Security, Medicare, the arts and public broadcasting. He was, Mr. Thomas writes, “by some measures, a bigger spender on social programs than LBJ had been.” He presided over the extension of the Voting Rights Act, the passage of the Clean Air Act and the creation of the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Amtrak. He imposed wage and price controls in an unsuccessful effort to stop inflation and, in 1973, proposed the creation of a national health-insurance scheme that anticipated ObamaCare by almost four decades.

Mr. Thomas fails to provide a compelling explanation of why Nixon tilted so far left in his presidency. He suggests that the president loved to do the unexpected and make the “ ‘big play’ that would surprise his enemies” and that he needed to compromise with a Democratic-controlled Congress. He also suggests that Nixon cared little about domestic affairs and delegated such matters to liberal assistants, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihanand John Ehrlichman. But why did he not hire more conservative staffers and obstruct, rather than enable, the big spenders in Congress? What Mr. Thomas does not sufficiently emphasize is the extent to which Nixon’s economic policies, along with the Arab oil boycott, helped create “stagflation” (stagnation and inflation) and thus contributed to his own downfall by tanking the economy. Nixon had many blind spots; one of the most damaging was his lack of economic acumen.

Where Mr. Thomas is overly kind to Nixon is in exaggerating his achievements with his openings to Beijing and Moscow, which turned out to be more glitz than substance. The big changes in those countries would occur with the rises of Deng Xiaoping and Boris Yeltsin, not with Nixon’s visits. In any case, China and Russia remain our biggest geopolitical adversaries. Nixon’s diplomatic outreach did not even achieve his immediate objective of “peace with honor.” North Vietnam agreed to a peace treaty in 1973 but immediately began violating it. A question that Mr. Thomas does not examine is whether, if Watergate had not happened and if Nixon had remained in office, he would have used American military power to save South Vietnam in 1975. But these are insignificant failings in what is otherwise a valuable and entertaining primer on Richard Nixon’s life.

The same cannot be said of “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon,” by former New York Times reporter Tim Weiner. This is little more than another anti-Nixon hit job—as if the world needed any more of those. Mr. Weiner does not attempt to sketch Nixon’s entire life and focuses solely on the presidential years.

Right at the start, Mr. Weiner calls Nixon a “monster” who “at his worst, stood on the brink of madness.” He scores a few good points: expressing skepticism about the opening to China and about the impact of Nixon’s domestic initiatives. (He quotes George Shultz saying that the economic policies were “in the long run . . . a catastrophe.”) But mostly he rehashes the familiar, and often unfair, indictment of Nixon. He writes, for example, that “Washington became a combat zone when the radical left confronted Nixon,” implying that Nixon was entirely to blame for a situation that had actually begun under Johnson. He also writes, with considerable hyperbole, that Nixon arrogated to himself “the powers of a secret police, the power to spy on American citizens, to break into their homes, to tap their telephones, to burglarize their offices,” as if the bungling White House “plumbers” who burgled the Watergate were the equivalent of the East German Stasi.

Mr. Weiner describes the secret bombing of Cambodia as “a massive attack on a neutral nation” that “arguably violated the laws of war.” In reality, Cambodia’s neutrality had already been violated by the Viet Cong, which used its territory as a base to attack South Vietnam. Mr. Weiner isn’t even consistent: He criticizes Nixon both for being too belligerent and for not being belligerent enough. In 1969, North Korea shot down a U.S. spy plane. Nixon’s response was a show of naval force in the Sea of Japan. “North Korea went unpunished,” Mr. Weiner laments. “Nixon had frozen in the face of a Communist attack.” Rest assured that if Nixon had launched a second Korean War based on this provocation, Mr. Weiner would be assailing him as a crazed militarist.

This is hardly an isolated example of Mr. Weiner twisting history. He also writes that Nixon launched a “war on the poor” by “erasing Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.” As we have seen, Nixon actually expanded the Great Society. When Mr. Weiner is not distorting, he is trivializing. He mocks “Vietnamization,” Nixon’s attempt to get South Vietnam to take responsibility for its own defense while U.S. troops were pulling out, by writing, in a particularly tasteless passage, that it simply amounted to “changing the color of the anticommunist corpses on the battlefield.” “Vietnamization” paid off in 1972 when South Vietnamese ground troops assisted by American air power repelled the North’s Easter Offensive, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Mr. Weiner’s book.

“One Man Against the World” is a book that will only charm inveterate Nixon haters eager to see their prejudices reconfirmed. By contrast, Evan Thomas’s “Being Nixon” should be read by anyone with a more open mind about the oddest man ever to occupy the Oval Office. What these divergent accounts show is that even now, four decades after he resigned from the presidency and more than two decades after his death, Nixon has not lost the power to polarize.