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He Wasn’t The Worst

Pádraig McAuliffe

Richard Milhous Nixon: The Invincible Quest, by Conrad Black, Quercus, 1,152 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1847242099

 

Political biographies matter. Every significant volume revisiting or revising a political reputation can alter the public perception of the subject’s policies and legacies, which in turn can impact on political contests. Yesterday’s cynical triangulator is tomorrow’s bi-partisan giant, today’s vigorous nationalist is tomorrow’s racist demagogue.

 

The constant process of reassessment and revision of US presidents is perhaps the best example of how fluctuating reputations of politicians past affect the here and now. One need only contrast the difference between Mitt Romney’s assiduous efforts to distance himself from the Reagan legacy in an early 90s gubernatorial race, when the latter’s stock was low, with his frantic but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to clothe himself in the mantle of the Gipper earlier this year in the Republican primaries to demonstrate the potency of historical re-evaluation to contemporary politics. Likewise, the toxicity of the later Bill Clinton years were decisive in the defeat of the seemingly unstoppable Hillary electoral juggernaut in the Democratic race, when history will surely remember them as a comparatively benign if uneventful interregnum between periods of war against foreign ideologies.

 

The reputations of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and the first Bush have similarly waxed and waned as reputations evolve in the light of history’s onward march. The career of Richard Milhous Nixon has also occasioned much re-examination. It would serve an instructive purpose in the current political climate on both sides of the political spectrum in the run-up to November’s elections were it not distorted by the Watergate scandal. One of the most relevant administrations to present American politics is continually ignored as a uniquely wicked, sui generis reign when in reality it has shaped the modern political landscape as much as any other since Lincoln’s.

 

For Republicans, currently in thrall to particularly hawkish and religious views of society and America’s place in the world, the Nixon era offers an example of a different, less divisive conservatism. Nixon was a genuinely populist politician, the last to successfully balance the moderate Lincoln/Teddy Roosevelt/Taft strain of Republicanism with the now ascendant Hayek/Buckley/Goldwater/Reagan brand. That moderate wing no longer exists, which is why the comparatively liberal John McCain now finds himself pandering to the knuckle-dragging, God and guns wing of the GOP and compromising the success of the party. For Democrats, the crass ineptitude and terrifying lawlessness of the current Bush regime should herald a pause in the demonisation of Nixon as the epitome of conservative transgression – indeed, only the current president has surpassed Nixon’s opprobrium on the admittedly imperfect barometer that is public opinion polls (at the time of writing, both hover around the 30 per cent satisfaction rating). Beyond this, it is Nixon’s success in having his party replace the Democrats as the political home of the white working class male which has meant that Barack Obama is still engaged in a tight presidential race despite his obvious superiority, morally and politically, over the desiccated fossil that is the compromised McCain. From McGovern through Dukakis, Kerry and perhaps now the junior senator from Illinois, the Democrats have never found a way to counteract Nixon’s characterisation of them as effete, unpatriotic liberals soft on crime and security and opposed to the sovereignty of the group he ingeniously dubbed “the silent majority”.

 

Added to the contemporary resonance of any Nixon biography is the added frisson of interest that must comes from its authorship by Conrad Black, the former newspaper magnate convicted in the US in 2007 and sentenced to 78 months’ imprisonment for three counts of fraud and one of obstruction of justice, crimes not entirely dissimilar to the ones that led to the downfall of the thirty-seventh president. Black eschews the neutrality one expects of mild-mannered Canadians – if the rather bombastic title did not give his sympathies away he nails his colours very firmly to the mast with the first sentence:

 

Richard Milhouse Nixon was one of America’s greatest political leaders, and probably its most controversial president.”

 

Throughout, this book is a transparent attempt by one guilty man to redeem and rehabilitate another, though it is sane enough to avoid defending the few things Black realises are patently indefensible. This partiality is not fatal to the book – history is either a moral argument with lessons for the present day or merely an accumulation of pointless facts. In wading through this 1,152-page monster, the reader is constantly reminded of this link between writer and subject. Curiously, one of the more interesting recent Nixon biographies was by another prominent jailbird, Tory perjurer Jonathan Aitken (Nixon: A Life). One can only wonder whether Radovan Karadzic will be whiling away his downtime in The Hague with a Slavic addition to the RMN canon.

 

Black’s opening assertion of Nixon’s greatness is incontestable. Few could have risen to the heights he did from a relatively poor background through modest careers in law, the wartime Office of Price Administration and the navy without more than a sprinkling of majesty. Crucially, however, he was not good. The parodies are not overly parodic – the Dick Nixon that emerges even in this relatively favourable treatment was joyless, humourless, petty, paranoid and vindictive (when his interior secretary, Walter Hickel, published a critical open letter, Nixon ordered the White House tennis court Hickel infrequently used to be ploughed up). Above all he lacked principle on the most serious questions, such as whether or not to illegally tape his colleagues or pardon the perpetrator of the My Lai massacre. It is no coincidence that his three electoral defeats, for college student president, US president and the California governorship were to energetic, sunny personalities. But it is his very weaknesses that make Nixon so endlessly fascinating.

 

Though Black’s cultural references go no further than numerous references to Wagner and the Bard of Avon (he refers to his subject’s life, not inaccurately, as a “Shakespearean hecatomb”), Nixon has attracted some of the greatest character actors of our time (Anthony Hopkins and the incomparable Philip Baker Hall), the giants of twentieth century American literature (Philip Roth, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer) and has even appeared over twenty times on The Simpsons, which must constitute some type of dubious record. Nixon’s personality has often been explained by a rhetorical question from one Heinz Alfred Kissinger: “Can you imagine what this man could have done if he had ever been loved?” But in fact this line of inquiry is misleading. Nixon never wanted for love from parents, siblings, daughters or wife (Pat Nixon, like most presidential spouses, emerges from this biography better than her husband). Nixon’s shortcomings can only be blamed on himself. However, he compensated for them with a Stakhanovite work ethic, searing intelligence and absence of overconfidence or complacency. He could not, like his current successor, coast on personality. Instead, he allied his indomitable will with a Quaker work ethic to be an absolute master of politics’ blackest arts. And in this he was a genius.

 

As a tactical campaigner he was without peer. He was a natural demagogue, an inspired debater and tireless worker. He memorised major speeches (withheld from all for maximum dramatic impact) rather than speaking haltingly from notes and prepared detailed responses to as many as two hundred questions on a given issue before any press conference.

 

Though legend has it that he lost the 1960 presidential election to Kennedy because of his comparative unattractiveness on camera, the most cursory glance at contemporary clips on Youtube show him to have been very accomplished on television and in any form of mass communication. Indeed, he rescued his nomination as Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952 by explaining away a corrupt $18,000 slush fund in a speech to a record sixty million TV audience and winning the public over with references to Checkers, the family dog. It was with individuals, not crowds, that his personality proved unappealing. Then there was his lack of conviction. Though suspicious of big government and endorsing the individualist ethic underpinning “the American dream” he was almost a blank canvas philosophically. He advocated conservative, private sector means for the achievement of liberal goals and was far from a doctrinaire conservative on economics. He left the legacies of JFK and LBJ intact and could (and did) claim with only mild exaggeration to be a Keynesian.

 

On the negative side, he earned the sobriquet Tricky Dick by engaging in the most poisonous of electioneering. In his first congressional race, at the age of 33 in 1946, Nixon ran for California’s 12th District employing red-baiting of the most scurrilous kind, assaulting his opponent, Jerry Voorhiss’s, patriotism and character on a constant basis. These tactics were to be repeated in his later election for the senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas in a contest of rare nastiness. Adlai Stevenson, who later ran against Nixon for national office, had few doubts about his abrasive politicking:

 

This man has no standard of truth except convenience and no standard of morality except what will serve his interest in an election … Nixonland [is] a land of slander and scare … sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call … anything to win.

 

Somewhat more humorously, Stevenson quipped that Nixon would “chop down a redwood tree and mount the stump and make a speech for conservation”.

 

It was in office, however, that he blazed a trail. In his first term in the House of Representatives, he ingeniously spotted an opening in the witch-hunt that was the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where, fuelled by insider information from Hoover’s FBI and the Catholic Church, he effectively took over the infamous Alger Hiss spying case. He deviously leaked to the papers and hounded Hiss while at the same time attracting kudos for being more moderate than some of his mossbacked colleagues. But as in his election victories, the success was Pyrrhic – the animosity he attracted from liberals and the media for his excesses would in the long term undermine him.

 

After four years in the House of Representatives, he became the US’s second youngest senator, castigating the Truman/Acheson foreign policy as a sell-out to Moscow even after they salvaged West Berlin, Greece, Iran, Turkey and South Korea. In the Senate, he cleverly distanced himself from the McCarthy with-hunts while at the same time playing to the base with inanities like describing Attlee’s Britain as a “half-slave” state. This balancing of red-baiting and moderation required enormous political skill. With just six years behind him in Congress and at the age of 39, his abilities made him Eisenhower’s vice-presidential nominee for the 1952 general election. The success did not come easily, requiring all Nixon’s skills in negotiating the labyrinthine complexities of Republican factional politics. The complex manoeuvrings in the run-up to the 1952 convention illustrate both his tactical brilliance and talent for skullduggery:

 

Nixon told the Taftites who were annoyed at his having joined the endorsement of Warren that he had done it for party unity, but that even if he ended up being on the Warren delegation, he would still be for Taft. Nixon was now ostensibly supporting all three candidates, including the undeclared Eisenhower, while assuring the Taft faction that he was really for them, and the Eisenhower faction that he was merely following Dewey’s advice in avoiding an open party schism in working for the general inside the Warren camp, while encouraging the Taftites against Warren.

 

After surviving the slush-fund fiasco, Nixon spent a frustrating eight years as junior partner in Eisenhower’s successful but at times moribund administration. He worked tirelessly for Republican candidates in all fifty states and did the dirty work the patrician Ike would not. He was crucial in rescuing the party from the right-wing isolationists and super-hawks, employing a forthrightness McCain is not permitted to demonstrate were he of a mind to do so (taking misguided Middle-Eastern imperialism as the modern equivalent of the isolationism and militant anti-Communism of the ’50s).

 

Nixon was the obvious Republican candidate in 1960, a more mature politician by now who no longer needed to resort to red-baiting. History and the lionisation of JFK have served to make this election win seem like a matter of destiny. In reality (and ignoring blatant Democrat chicanery in Illinois and Texas), Nixon threw the election away as his winning instincts deserted him. The magician, as Black puts it, missed a few tricks. Incumbency was of little benefit, since Eisenhower was slow to support the vice-president he disdained and was then sick when he finally roused himself to do so. The hopeless and hapless Henry Cabot Lodge was a disastrous choice as running mate, while Nixon, for reasons unknown, failed to attack Kennedy on his dubious family history and his Addison’s disease. It is worth remembering that Nixon lost the popular vote by 100,000 out of 68.3 million votes, that nine of Kennedy’s states went his way by a 1 per cent margin and that if 9,000 JFK voters had stayed away in Illinois, Nixon would have been president. Most would argue that the US and the world as a whole – Vietnam excepted – were better off for the JFK and (especially) LBJ administrations. Nonetheless, the narrowness of the defeat shows Nixon’s strength as a politician, even in defeat. While everyone reasonably assumed this was the end of him as a presidential possibility, he doggedly came back stronger to win in 1968, defeating the much weaker opponent that was Hubert Humphrey.

 

In between, he lost the 1964 California gubernatorial race to the forgotten Democrat Pat Brown, a defeat so anomalous and ultimately insignificant it is not worth explaining. He spent the JFK/LBJ era supporting other Republican candidates, building up the party and restoring his credibility as a national leader. In a party divided between the Darwinian economics of Barry Goldwater and the elite liberalism of Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon emerged before the 1968 election as the battle-scarred least-worst option, a role not dissimilar John McCain’s this year.

 

If a week is a long time in politics, a two-term presidency, even truncated, is an epoch. Domestically, Nixon could do little that was revolutionary as Democrats controlled Congress and upheld the welfare reforms of FDR, JFK and LBJ. He would establish his legacy in foreign affairs – he entered this period a battle-hardened national politician and left it a world statesman, albeit disgraced. He also changed the face of American electoral politics despite a famed indifference to domestic affairs. His traditional Quaker antipathy to racism and inequality led him to fully implement the desegregation project that followed the Brown v Board of Education case. Lyndon Johnson is quite rightly regarded as the presidential hero in terms of civil rights and desegregation (and both he and Nixon compare favourably to the foot-dragging Eisenhower and Kennedy), but Nixon did not merely follow in Johnson’s slipstream. Even in his earliest days, Nixon sponsored black members of his college societies and was a member of the NAACP in his first Congressional campaign. In a book that at time borders on the hagiographic, Black surprisingly neglects to mention one salient fact – that when Nixon took office in 1969, less than 6 per cent of black children were in desegregated schools. When he resigned, 90 per cent of southern-state black children received desegregated education. He was the president who first invited Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to the White House. Castigate him by all means, but some of his work was admirable and some aspects of his character attractive.

 

The advance of black civil and political rights incurred the wrath of the white South, but while Nixon’s southern strategy saw him brook no compromise in terms of desegregation he carried it out in such a way as to paint racism as a national and not merely a southern problem. By avoiding aggression and divisiveness and pushing a hard line on crime and security, he “defanged” the single biggest issue of the era:

 

To integrationists, the administration was carrying out the law. To non-integrationists, it was doing what the law required as painlessly as possible.

 

The South, hitherto a bastion of Democrat voters, now lurched towards the party of Lincoln. Nixon appealed to the growing number of moderate whites in the south more than the liberal Democrats of the North and the racist Dixiecrat hold-outs. Even in his most exalted office, he mixed the Machiavellian with the outright cynical. At the height of Watergate he decided to reconnect with Middle America and was caught on tape planning to have his daughter “ride a bus for two hours; do the cancer thing; do a park in Oklahoma”. He was the first president to take the environment seriously, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Though his policies in this area were unsophisticated (“When in doubt, make a park out of it”), they compare favourably with the appalling lassitude of the current administration.

 

Nixon showed a keen talent in Cold War geopolitics, exhibiting a diplomatic finesse never hinted at in his red-baiting days. His success in external relations has always however been overshadowed by the large historical role claimed for himself by the shameless self-publicist Henry Kissinger. Black misses few opportunities to excoriate the venal, vain and manipulative National Security Adviser (and later Secretary of State). The Kissinger that emerges is an almost comedically sneaking master bureaucrat keen to bolster his own power domestically and to manipulate the press by hogging the dubious glories of the administration at the expense of his boss, whom he in turn flatters at every opportunity (if the Nixon story is indeed Shakespearean, has there ever been a more apt Iago?) As Black notes, Kissinger and Nixon brought out each other’s worst qualities. What he does not make clear is that he also bears a very personal animus against Kissinger, whom he co-opted onto the board of his Hollinger business empire only to see the wily old diplomat desert him when the fraud charges were laid. Black is referring to more than the Nixon-Kissinger relationship when he describes the latter as a colleague “whose propensity to run for cover when a friend was under attack was an irrepressible reflex (of which he never cured himself)”.

 

As moderate hawks of the realist school, Nixon and Kissinger preached that strength was the only thing the Communists understood but tempered this with comprehensive arms limitation agreements with the USSR. Nixon’s visit to Romania in 1960 made him the first US president to make an official state visit behind the Iron Curtain. Nixon foreign policy will always be remembered for two things, however – escalating and then ending the Vietnam War (though the denouement ultimately arrived under Gerald Ford), and recognising Mao’s People's Republic of China.

 

He had come to power promising to end the Vietnam War and win the peace. He is perceived to have done so but the reality is a little more complex. His Vietnam policy began before he was elected, with what can only be described as a treason that far surpasses the relative storm in a teacup that was Watergate. Through the use of an intermediary named Anna Chenault, Nixon encouraged the South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu to scupper peace talks in Paris in 1968 that might have delivered a workable solution to the conflict for Lyndon Johnson and, most likely, an election victory for the Democrats. He promised Thieu that a Republican administration would be more pro-Saigon than the Democrats and thus may have extended the war’s duration by a number of years (though it should be conceded that the Paris talks were far from advanced).

 

Black dismisses the Nixon-Chenault communications in a single page, whereas for many Nixon biographers they form the core of the moral case against him. Of course Vietnam was a hopeless war and not one of Nixon’s choosing. JFK blundered in and LBJ used the fraudulent Tonkin Gulf incident to drag the US into a ruinous full-scale war. Nixon, like most others, realised it was an unwinnable quagmire, a fact made evident by his secret offer to Hanoi in the first months in office to withdraw if the North Vietnamese made a conciliatory gesture and withdrew to their border, even temporarily. This is what Nixon described as “peace with honour” – a face-saving withdrawal that would ultimately lead to a united communist Vietnam. Most criticism from the left focuses on the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia that occurred to cover Nixon’s withdrawal of the hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground. As regards the former, Hanoi had rejected peace talks and was still at war, so Nixon was by no means a uniquely guilty president for prosecuting the war in a punitive fashion. He also violated Cambodia’s neutrality, killed tens of thousands there and unwittingly created the vacuum that Pol Pot filled, but the case against him here cannot reside in international law alone. Cambodia either exercised sovereignty over its eastern border or it did not – to the extent that Hanoi controlled it as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, one can understand, if not accept, Nixon’s argument that criticising the invasion of North Vietnam-occupied Cambodia is akin to castigating Eisenhower and Montgomery for invading German-occupied France.

 

Amid the wrangling over international law and humanitarian law, the real objection to Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war lies in the fact that 20,00 US soldiers and at least 280,000 Vietnamese on both sides died in a war for no strategic or military goal beyond establishing a “decent interval” between American departure and the collapse of Saigon. Primary blame for Vietnam must of course lie with Kennedy and Johnson, but over the course of Nixon’s six years, nearly a third of a million people died for no better purpose than the mitigation of Washington’s humiliation. Black repeats the spurious argument that there were two wars – the US lost the first war for South Vietnam but won a second war which primarily involved Hanoi’s determination to humiliate the US. This is revisionism not as twisting of established facts but as wishful thinking. It undermines what is an otherwise exhaustive examination of the diplomacy and escalation in Vietnam from 1969 to 1974. Kissinger’s Nobel Prize (which Nixon might well have shared were it not for Watergate) remains an indelible stain on the award.

 

The recognition of the People’s Republic of China remains Nixon’s greatest achievement and one of the great leaps in the history of US diplomacy, if not the greatest. What is more it was all Nixon’s idea. Kissinger was sceptical (though typically eager to accept the garlands when it worked) and the conservative right abandoned Nixon as an apostate. Nowadays, it is the same Republican right (at the risk of tautology it may be said that there is no longer any Republican centre) that advocates bombing Tehran instead of talking to it, but none of the contemporary GOP leadership can ignore the lobotomised right in the way Nixon so contemptuously did.

 

Recognising China fundamentally altered the complexion of the Cold War by isolating Hanoi and Moscow. There would be no unified Communist bloc, while diplomatic relations with the world’s coming great power were secured. Only Nixon could have done it, if only for the reason that if any other American president had attempted it, the cynical Nixon would have been among the first to engage in partisan denunciation. At 98 per cent, the visit to China registered the highest US public recognition of any event in the history of Gallup polls. Were it not for Watergate, it would be remembered as the defining moment of a generally successful presidency by an unlikable but memorable president who would gain great credit for a robust economy, the preservation of Johnson’s Great Society, desegregation and the neutralisation of the bitterness of the 1968 anti-war riots.

 

Few people under the age of fifty know precisely what Watergate was all about, primarily because it was above all a deeply tedious and interminably complex saga. Essentially, what occurred was that a group recruited by Nixon’s re-election workers (the wonderfully-named Committee to Re-Elect the President – CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, in all likelihood without Nixon’s precise knowledge, and were caught. Money from the re-election campaign was then diverted to the detained culprits by Nixon to have them alter their testimony. Nixon was also caught on the tapes he had installed due to his paranoia authorising the implication of the CIA in the affair (Watergate remains possibly the only piece of undemocratic chicanery in the 1970s western hemisphere that doesn’t bear the CIA’s imprint). The investigations progressed through a criminal case and a grand jury and would have led to successful impeachment proceedings had the president not resigned from office on August 8th, 1974.

 

Nixon never admitted criminality and went to his grave twenty years later maintaining he was guilty of nothing more than wrongdoing. If he had destroyed the tapes in time, as he legally could have done as they were his property, if he had received better legal advice or if he had engaged in damage limitation, the cataclysm could have been averted. Indeed, Black spends a considerable portion of the last third of the book suggesting ways in which Nixon could have avoided his fate. In some ways, it is possible to sympathise with the man. Nobody died, he did not give specific instructions for the break-in and in the grand scale of presidential transgression (not least his own in southeast Asia and Chile), it was much ado about nothing. Nonetheless it may be said that the vigour with which he was attacked by the media and the Democrats was the inevitable consequence of his own grossly iniquitous behaviour while clambering up the greasy pole of American politics. There is a delicious irony in a man being undone by his past viciousness and the paranoia which came from having made so many enemies. It was all so unnecessary – his Democratic opposition in the 1972 presidential election was the hapless George McGovern, whom he trounced by winning 49 states. As Black notes with rare humour:

 

In, there was no chance the country was going to throw out Nixon to bring in McGovern, unless Nixon had burgled the Watergate himself looking for pornographic material of his own delectation and then resale to children whom he had molested.

 

Nixon could rightly claim that Watergate overshadowed his greatest achievements. It has also ensured that those who wish to damn him often neglect to dig deeper into his transgressions. Conrad Black makes little attempt to explore some of Nixon’s more questionable acts – his tax evasion, his role in the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile and his tampering with the Paris peace negotiations before the 1968 elections are all dismissed in a page or less. He concedes that Nixon’s moral sense was impaired by the immense pressures of the office, but in fact his flaws were manifest long before.

 

Black’s final chapter (titled, with a degree of hyperbole not always associated with the Daily Telegraph, “The Transfiguration”) traces Nixon’s life from resignation to his death in 1994. It argues that history has vindicated Nixon. This is wishful thinking – Tricky Dick is still considered by the general public and historians alike as a failed president. Where the book succeeds is in demonstrating the achievements that sat alongside the flaws and failings. The Nixon that emerges compares favourably with the current president and his possible Arizona successor, a point not made by Black, presumably lest it jeopardise the chances of a presidential pardon.

 

Richard Milhous Nixon: The Invincible Quest is too partisan to be considered truly great when volumes like Richard Reeve’s President Nixon: Alone in the White House and Robert Mason’s Richard Nixon and the Quest for a New Majority have set the standard. Nevertheless, it is a very worthwhile read. Black is an excellent writer (“In the years during and immediately following the war, as prosperity returned, the influx of newcomers to California tended to be less John Steinbeck’s Okies, seeking the first citadels of the New Deal and bearing westward likenesses of Franklin D. Roosevelt like the Infant of Prague”) and is especially proficient in describing the convoluted set pieces that marked Nixon’s career – the Hiss trial, the manipulation of the Californian delegation to vote for Eisenhower in 1952 on the train to the Republican convention, the visit to China and especiallyWatergate. Black’s evident delight in Nixoniana will delight those passionate in either admiration or hatred of this most maligned of presidents (he played with dolls as a child, was too prudish a lawyer to handle divorce cases, watched George C Scott’s Patton hundreds of times and started the ridiculous American flag-pin craze after seeing one on Robert Redford in The Candidate). If one’s scruples can allow one to potentially fund Black’s appeal, this massive, detailed work is definitely worth a few weeks’ determined perusal.


Pádraig McAuliffe is a PhD finalist and IRCHSS Government of Ireland Scholar at the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights in University College Cork ([email protected])

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