It’s almost like having history turned on its head or everything you ever thought you knew being shown as wrong — or is it?
I’m describing my reaction to a book I have begun to read about Richard Nixon, 37th president of the United States, who became the only American president to resign his office, doing so into his second term after winning by a landslide, as the result of the Watergate scandal, in which it was shown, among many other things, he approved a break-in of the Democratic campaign headquarters.
Unless you were a die-hard Nixon supporter, if you are my age (65) or older you know that man as a slime ball they called “Tricky Dick” or the guy who proclaimed to the people when he was on the ropes “I’m not a crook”, when the evidence already indicated he was dirty as heck.
But I’ve begun reading something that seems so far to portray him in an at times more favorable or and at least much more sympathetic light, although admitting from the start he had a dark side that eventually became his downfall.
And really some of this is not new to me — in fact the book is not new research, just a compilation of anecdotes and bits from the archives and passages from other books over the years on one of our most controversial political personages ever.
The book is: “Being Nixon, A Man Divided,” by Evan Thomas. I caught wind of the book by an interview I chanced to hear on the radio (NPR I’m sure). Thomas is a self-described Eastern Establishment reporter who covered Nixon and seems to own up to the fact that he and many of his colleagues did not always give Nixon a fair shake. Answering an interviewer’s question he acknowledges that in some way the book may be the result of a guilt feeling on his part.
A lot of the book is about Nixon’s strange loner personality and quirks. But heck everyone comes off a little strange when observed up close or perhaps in private, or to borrow a phrase from one of those bar girls in the movie Fargo, he was “stranger than most”.
In my young adulthood I really came to detest Nixon. I followed him along with all current events from a young age. However, as interested in current events as I was and in politics in general, I missed out on the whole presidential campaign of 1968. I had just joined the army. I was standing in a chow line on an icy November morning in Baumholder, Germany when I saw the headline on a Stars and Stripes newspaper that Nixon had won the presidency.
So I missed out on the whole thing of him having a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, a war that was becoming unpopular among much of the American public, not just the standard war protestors, and was becoming more so every day as we saw our combat deaths in the hundreds each week reported on TV, adding up thousands over the decade it was waged, eventually resulting in some 60,000 American war dead. And with that we saw how innocent civilians, including little children, were being killed or gravely wounded. There was that iconic photo of the little girl running naked along with many other children after being hit by a fiery napalm attack performed by American aircraft. And we saw the senseless battles on the TV news where we would take a hill in conventional war fashion in this unconventional war just to give it up afterwards because it had no value to anyone — never mind all the soldiers and marines killed in the process.
(Actually that iconic shot of the little girl I mentioned happened on Nixon’s watch in 1972.)
But Nixon, the Republican challenger in the 1968 presidential race, had a plan to end the war, or so he led everyone to believe (the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey, was stuck with Lyndon Johnson’s unsuccessful war legacy). It had become a war owned by the Democrats since LBJ had committed regular forces to it where there had just been a relative handful of advisors.
But Nixon’s plan to end the war history seems to show was not that at all or at least Henry Kissinger could not work it out at the Paris Peace Talks. And Nixon refused to pull out. He was stuck to the Vietnam tar baby just like LBJ. Nixon did not want to be the one who lost the war. He wanted to withdraw through some kind of peace accord — “peace with honor”. So the war dragged on and more American soldiers died and more were gravely wounded.
In the end, we quit with little to no honor, but when you dig yourself into a hole you have to quit digging at some point if you ever think you might have a chance to get out.
(I always must interject that it was not our troops who lost the war but the leadership, civilian and military, and in reality it was the kind of war where real victory, due to circumstances beyond our control, was likely unattainable.)
Nixon was obsessed with the anti-war movement and had his henchmen do all kind of illegal things to stop it, to include breaking into a psychiatrist’s office to discredit Danielle Ellsberg who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the press, the secret U.S. government documents that showed the government knew we were losing the war despite its own propaganda to the American people that we were winning. You remember, the inflated enemy body counts and all.
And I have gotten off track here. What I was trying to say, even though this is not all completely new to me, the book I am reading tells of Nixon’s humble beginnings and his scholarship and his patriotism and his early concern and actions on civil rights, both on a personal level and governmental level. And it tells of his intense interest in and knowledge of world affairs and how he reportedly impressed world leaders, surprising them that he was not just some low-class dunderhead as they had been led to believe by what they had read.
(A more recent Republican president brought no such surprise to world leaders.)
It tells of how he and his wife were snubbed by the establishment or the upper crust in social and political circles.
I’m a sap maybe for sob stories, but parts of this almost have me in tears and rooting for the underdog.
So far, except for the early-on qualification that in the end he did dark things, the book is a glowing account of a most committed public servant. I don’t know how the book concludes, but really we all know how it ends. I mean we know the guy did bad, bad things. If nothing else he admits it himself on the Watergate tapes.
History probably shows a lot of historical icons or heroes did underhanded and even immoral things in private — I think the trick is keeping it secret — damn near impossible these days.
Like I say, the early chapters in this book had me feeling so much sympathy and even righteous anger on behalf of a misunderstood and much maligned hero. But then I was jolted back into reality — I did not skip forward, but I happened to read a synopsis of Nixon’s sins by Woodward and Bernstein, authors of “All the President’s Men”. I also refreshed my memory via other articles on the internet.
Even though Nixon always portrayed himself as a political conservative, some have noted that he turned out to be one of our more liberal presidents in many ways. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and he made amends with Communist China among other things (not because he became communist but because it was seen as a better way to deal with our communist foes at the time).
Nixon had a penchant for digging up dirt against his opponents in political races. And that’s what led to the Watergate scandal. But, law-breaking notwithstanding, that is how politics is played and if you are too pure for that you just don’t want to win bad enough. Just ask Mike Dukakis.
Of course actual lying or plainly distorting your opponent’s record is wrong. Or how would Nixon put it? “I could do that but it would be wrong,” Just like he famously proclaimed: “I’m not a crook.”
If Nixon were the Republican candidate today I might be tempted to vote for him. There are few to none in that crowd of GOP candidates today who could even come close to him in love of country and fair-mindedness (despite his bigoted outbursts on those tapes) and understanding of world affairs.
I told you I watched stuff when I was just a youngster:
Boy did Nixon stand up to and in fact get the better of that fat little bully Nikita Khrushchev in the famous Kitchen Debate.
I was so proud of him. What happened Dick?