“Even Richard Nixon has got soul”: Evan Thomas’s take on the late President in “Being Nixon”

Nixon bumper sticker, circa 1962 - 1968, David Broder Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress

In 1976, Pat Nixon, wife of the former President, suffered a stroke. Television cameras caught a distraught Richard Nixon propelling himself through a set of hospital revolving doors. Musician Neil Young watched the scene unfold from afar and took pity on the disgraced president, penning what would become the song “Campaigner” and offering Nixon a slice of humanity:

Hospitals have made him cry
But there’s always a freeway in his eye
Though his beach got too crowded for a stroll.
Roads stretch out like healthy veins
And wild gift horses strain the reins
Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.

The Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young member and solo artist proved an unlikely source of sympathy. Several years earlier in the aftermath of the Kent State Massacre, Young unleashed the blistering “Ohio,” singing:

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

In 1979, Young confided to then-Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe that at the time he had felt bad for Nixon; “Campaigner” served as an existential olive branch.

The Canadian singer-songwriter had gotten to the core of the ex-president. Though Nixon loved his wife, he struggled with open displays of affection.[1] The campaign trail animated Nixon in ways that would baffle most people, yet for all his political acumen, Nixon struggled with his own party. Even Republicans like William F. Buckly had their doubts about the man even before Watergate. In Nixon’s fall from grace, few felt as much empathy as Young.

Enter the well-known biographer Evan Thomas and his most recent book, Being Nixon: A Man Divided (2015). Thomas first met Nixon in 1988 while working at Newsweek and came away from the encounter impressed by the former president’s attention to detail. “Your grandfather was a great man,” Nixon told Thomas, the grandson of Norman Thomas, longtime leader of the Socialist Party in America. “Nixon, in his careful, always prepared way, must have looked at the attendance list and done some homework,” Thomas reflects.[2] In Being Nixon, like Young, Thomas believes and strives to demonstrate “even Richard Nixon has got soul.”

Nixon bumper sticker, circa 1962 - 1968, David Broder Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress
Nixon bumper sticker, circa 1962 – 1968, David Broder Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress

The Cultural and Political Nixonian Landscape

Many trees have given their lives to books on Nixon. In 2008, Rick Perlstein released Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. As many readers expected a Robert Caro-style epic, Nixonland upon initial reading underwhelmed, but it has grown in estimation every time ToM returns to it. Though Perlstein’s style sometimes feels a bit snarky and in many ways the book is more of a synthesis, Nixonland is a tour de force with a point of view and well-written perspective on Tricky Dick. Driven by an inferiority complex and fueled by sharp intellect, bottomless resiliency, Machiavellian political vision, and dogged work ethic, Richard Nixon overcame great odds and a dubious personality to rise to power and later fall from grace. For Perlstein, Nixon laid the groundwork for the kind of partisan politics we’ve come witness in our most recent elections.

Others, like Bruce Schulman in The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, situate Nixon as the logical political manifestation of larger forces at play: a president who didn’t necessarily create the divisions of the last quarter of the century but exploited them. Nixon despised cultural elites and Eastern powerbrokers. However, rather than revoke the NEA, Nixon expanded its spending but “redirected federal arts policy and reallocated federal arts dollars” by emphasizing popular and populist forms of art rather than the avant-garde, shifting funding to “regional and local authorities and cultural endeavors,” and promoting his own “ideological agenda, such as sending the pop-rock group Blood, Sweat, and Tears on a concert tour through Eastern Europe to showcase American artistic freedom.”[3] The oft mentioned Matthew Lassiter demonstrated in his The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (2007), how Nixon papered over class differences to stitch together a “Silent Majority” of working-class laborers and middle-class suburban homeowners defining “Middle America” in the language of “suburban identity politics” which privileged “consumer status, taxpayer rights, and meritocractic individualism”.[4]

Richard Nixon Campaign Tour Press Button, Circa 1968, David Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Richard Nixon Campaign Tour Press Button, Circa 1968, David Broder Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Culturally, while Nixon might not have the cachet of John F. Kennedy, his legacy seems quite formidable. Every scandal that arises today inevitably gets labeled “[something]-gate.” This extends well past the realm of the political; even Tom Brady’s alleged canoodling with footballs earned the moniker “Deflategate.” In America in the 70s, editors Beth Bailey and David Farber contribute to and organize a collection of essays about the decade from the likes of Jefferson Cowie, Chris Capozzola, and Michael Nevin Willard, among others, in which Nixon’s apparition hovers over all. In a discussion of Jimmy Carter’s appeal to “new media” through his famous Playboy “lust in my heart” interview, thereby solidifying “a new political campaign style in which candidates vied with one another, informally with seeming candor … to display their humanity,” Farber rightly notes Nixon’s contribution via his 1968 Laugh-In appearance. If the “uptight” Nixon could get a space on a “wacky” TV show like Laugh In, all bets were off, or in this case on and on and on.[5] It need not be said, but today we have The Donald, a product of the intersection of reality television, entertainment, and politics.

Hollywood’s taken some recent cracks as well. Forty years ago, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, playing much better looking versions of Washington Post journalists and muckrakers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein respectively, epitomized the conspiratorial tone of the 1970s with All the President’s Men (1976). Sure, Nixon never even really appears in the film but he’s undoubtedly one of its stars. More recently, Oliver Stone dedicated three paranoid hours to the man in 1995’s Nixon; Ron Howard another two in Frost/Nixon, to say nothing of Andrew Fleming’s classic 1999 satire, Dick. Politically, many a commentator has drawn comparisons between GOP nominee Donald Trump and Nixon. Some pundits go so far as to note Nixon’s famous “Southern Strategy” laid the groundwork for the electoral ascendency of the New Right in the last quarter of the century, while also doing the same for its recent, apparent decline. So the legacy is far and wide.

"Where's Nixon?" a cartoon of the Whittier College student body, Acropolis, 1934, Joseph and Stewart Alsop Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress
“Where’s Nixon?;” a cartoon of the Whittier College student body from the 1934 yearbook;  Acropolis, 1934, Joseph and Stewart Alsop Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress

The Psychological Angle

“This is not a book intended to weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker,” Thomas writes at the outset, “and, although the Watergate scandal figures inevitably and prominently, I do not attempt to solve its many mysteries. Rather, I have made an effort to understand what it was like to be Richard Nixon.”[6] Indeed, in five hundred plus pages, Thomas goes to great lengths to explore Nixon’s psychology more than his policies. Thomas definitely drills down in an attempt to understand what it felt like to be Richard Nixon and to his credit does actually do some archival digging, such as exploring the Leonard Garment papers at the Library of Congress, not to mention numerous interviews of Nixon loyalists, administration staffers, and associates.

Throughout he pushes back against what he sees as cartoonish depictions of Nixon and, in several instances, gives him the benefit of the doubt. For example, Thomas dismisses the “Fund scandal” (more commonly referenced as the “Checkers Speech” based on the televised address he gave to viewers refuting charges of hypocrisy and corruption in 1952) as more media hype than reality. Thomas might be correct about the media’s overstating the affair, but several historians have noted Nixon never really put the issue to rest. To dismiss it out of hand might be a bit too much. Yet, this episode encapsulates Thomas’s general approach.

Acropolis, 1934, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Nixon’s own social club; Acropolis, 1934, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

To be clear, Thomas does not ignore Nixon’s weaknesses. He acknowledges the streak of rancor that seemed to drive Nixon: “resentment, though toxic, was vital to Nixon.”[7] Thomas traces this sense of resentment back to Nixon’s childhood. Like Perlstein, Thomas highlights Nixon’s undergraduate days at the small Quaker university Whittier College, notably his role in the creation of the Orthogonians.

When unable to gain admittance to the apparently “elite” social club known as the “Franklins”, Nixon created the rival Orthogonians. Sure the Franklins might have been fancy, but fact was notes Thomas most people in life are not members of the elite classes; a reality Nixon grasped better then his peers. Greek for “square shooters”, Nixon utilized the club as a means to build a political organization. The Franklins might have the quarterback but the Orthogonians had “most of the linemen,” or as one classmate remembered “there were more of them.”

Much like his later political career, Nixon rallied from the rejection of the Franklins by establishing the rival club and defeating a Franklin for Student Body President in 1933. Historians like Thomas and Perlstein have often used this example both as a frame for Nixon’s psychology and political acumen, though Perlstein draws upon the example more frequently throughout his examination of the former president.  “Nixon always had a gift for looking under social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean thrust that roiled underneath,” wrote Perlstein.

Nixon President of Whittier College Student Government; Acropolis, 1934, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Nixon President of Whittier College Student Government; Acropolis, 1934, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This sense of indignation buoyed Nixon in crisis, but undermined him in success. When he won the 1972 Presidential Election in a then-historic landslide, Kissinger noted Nixon exuded no elation but rather appeared “grim and remote as if the more fateful period of his life lay ahead.” Customarily, White House staffers submit resignations at the end of a first term, but Nixon’s melancholy in victory and Haldeman’s “terse” request for their resignations served to corrupt morale. “It was demeaning,” presidential assistant Peter Flanigan remembered. Even Nixon came to regret his actions later in life: “I see this now as a mistake. I did not take into account the chilling effect this action would have on . . . morale.”[8]

Thomas also addresses Nixon’s contradictions. Though “ardently pro-Israel” and dependent on a number of Jewish advisors from Henry Kissinger to Len Garment, the late president nonetheless would rail about “the Jews through all the government,” demanding aides like Haldeman “get a man in charge who is not Jewish to control the Jewish.”[9] Ever concerned about masculinity – at one point he tells his aides that real men don’t “eat soup,” thus removing it from the White House menu – Thomas argues Nixon’s drive was derived not from his father or brothers but his mother and women like her. “It is true that Nixon often professed to admire manly men … Nixon liked to lower his voice when he was in tense situations … But from his mother to his wife to his daughters, he was drawn to examples of feminine strength,” writes Thomas. “His father may fervently waved his arms at revival meetings, but it was his mother who truly kept the faith.”[10] He ridiculed the Ivy League but then constantly hired from its ranks.

Due to his more psychological approach, Thomas does reveal aspects of Nixon that have previously been ignored or obscured. For example, in high school and college, Nixon participated in drama clubs and performed in numerous plays. Acting, argues Thomas, expanded Nixon’s confidence, emotional vocabulary, and range. This came into great effect when appealing to voters or audiences. When Nixon wept openly after his 1952 Checkers Speech, his old acting Coach Albert Upton was said to have exclaimed, “That’s my boy! That’s my actor!”[11] Of course, other historians have noted Nixon’s dependence on his stage experience also hurt him. Mary Ann Watson points out that in the 1960 election John F. Kennedy better understood the nuances of television, the way it exaggerated mannerisms and magnified personalities, playing to the camera subtly in ways that gave him a more presidential veneer. In contrast, Nixon geared his campaign speeches and appearances to live performance, which came across on TV as cartoonish.[12]

Nixon the thespian; "The Acropolis", Whittier College, 1934, Joseph and Steward Alsop Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Nixon the thespian; “The Acropolis”, Whittier College, 1934, Joseph and Steward Alsop Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Judging from Being Nixon, film depictions like those in Nixon and Dick that portray a drunk, angry Nixon miss the mark. Unlike the boozy, drunken Anthony Hopkins stumbling the halls of the White House, Thomas suggests that rather than a heavy drinker, Nixon was a light weight and possibly dependent on sleeping pills and other sedatives like Dilantin, which often contributed to his inebriation. “There is debate about how much Nixon drank, but none about his tendency to sound inebriated after only a drink or two.”[13] The depiction of Nixon as cold and removed from his wife Pat also, argues Thomas, does not align with the reality; rather, a combination of Nixon’s social awkwardness, interference by his advisors, his belief that he needed to create a presidential Nixon façade, and the stresses of the office conspired to undermine their outward appearances. However, Nixon deeply loved Pat and in many ways simply reflected a certain cohort of his generation that felt uncomfortable with public displays of affection: “Nixon had trouble showing his affection for Pat in public, and he was often off by himself, but he left little notes of endearment on her bed.”[14]

Still, at times, Thomas feels almost too forgiving. A couple of examples: Nixon only became Tricky Dick after Kennedy had pulled several fast ones on him in 1960; though he sometimes spoke sharply with Pat and embarrassed her publicly from time to time, he deeply loved her; his anti-Semitism reflected more about Christian white men of his generation than a deep hatred of Jews. It often feels as if Thomas wants to create a Nixon, neither crook nor New Right visionary, but rather the most pragmatic of politicians and a product of his day. When discussing the Watergate scandal, Thomas almost depicts Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox as traitorous for agreeing to oppose Nixon based on their Harvard Law affinity. “They valued their loyalty to the rule of law, and to each other, far above any allegiance to Nixon,” writes Thomas. “Matched against such self-conscious pillars of rectitude, Nixon was bound to look like a small mean tyrant.”[15] Sure, but then again, Nixon had the distinct ability to make himself tyrannical.

Undoubtedly, Thomas displays a fluid and engaging writing style. It lacks the snark of Perlstein’s work, which is also grander scope, vision, and context; but Thomas admits as much in the introduction.

A little over a decade a go, Jun Chang and Jon Holiday published Mao: The Unknown Story, a great read about the late chairman and architect of modern China. Though insightful, it also often seemed as if the authors accepted every negative story they had heard about Mao and reported it as historical fact. Mao, was of course, a brutal and ruthless leader, but the assemblage of stories in Mao felt like an overstatement of his cruelty and to some extent undermined the book’s larger ambitions.

At times, Thomas goes in the opposite direction, accepting Nixon’s explanations or those of his loyalists too readily. To be fair, when speaking about the book to audiences, Thomas sounds more skeptical and critical of Nixon, but in the text not as much. David Greenberg’s New York Times review makes a fair point, suggesting that perhaps the essence of Nixon can’t be captured in one single book. Thomas “pinballs from one topic to the next,” Greenberg wrote in 2015. “A quick take on school desegregation dissolves into a riff on Nixon’s taste in movies and then it’s off to Cambodia. The insistence on tackling so much material also precludes the sort of fine-grained analysis — whether of politics or policy or personality — that a porterhouse steak of a biography like this implicitly promises.”

Granted, ToM and Dr. Greenberg have differed in the past, but here he makes a good point. Robert Caro’s masterful and, yes, flawed The Power Broker ran several hundred pages and told the history of New York City, Al Smith, and Moses brilliantly. His four volume LBJ series also manages to capture the man, his era, and the institutions that created him very well. Caro discovers ways to illuminate the psychology, context, and policies of both men and often those they sparred with, but it obviously required more than five hundred plus pages.   In the end, Thomas’s book is a solid addition to the canon, but more a supplement or primer than a game changing central text. Indeed, as Young sang, Nixon had soul, but it requires a good deal more than one book to really discover and understand it.

[1] Evan Thomas, Being Nixon: A Man Divided, (New York: Random House, 2016).

[2] Thomas, Being Nixon, 533.

[3] Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002), 28.

[4] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 198.

[5] David Farber, “The Torch Had Fallen,” in America in the ‘70s, Eds. Beth Baily and David Farber, (Lawrenceville, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2004), 16.

[6] Thomas, Being Nixon, xv.

[7] Thomas, Being Nixon, 227.

[8] Thomas, Being Nixon, 416-417.

[9] Thomas, Being Nixon, 335-336.

[10] Thomas, Being Nixon, 174.

[11] Thomas, Being Nixon, 4.

[12] Mary Ann Watson, “The Kennedy-Nixon Debates: The Launch of Television’s Transformation of U.S. Politics and Culture,” The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy, Ed. Andrew Hoberek, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 47.

[13] Thomas, Being Nixon, 169.

[14] Thomas, Being Nixon, 280.

[15] Thomas, Being Nixon, 472.